Book Review: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

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Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

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The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, published by Random House, copyright 1957, 211 pages

Since the virus pandemic I’ve been rereading many of the books in my library and came across this classic which I previously reviewed here in 2016.  If you’re looking for an escape from all this lockdown boredom, check it out.

People who are curious and inspired by our natural world can often look to another person, event, film, or book that first sparked that interest.  Candidates for books that potentially fit that bill include Walden by Thoreau (1854), the writings of John Muir about the Sierra Nevada around 1900, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White describing in detail the geology, flora and fauna of his native southern England in the 18th century, and more recently Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928) chronicling a year on Cape Cod.  For me that spark occurred 50 years ago when I first read The Immense Journey.

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Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus   (click on photos to zoom)

Loren Eiseley was born to a homesteading family in Nebraska in 1907 and eventually rose to become the Head of the Department Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Much of his academic work involved searching for evidence of post-glacial man in the plains and mountains of the western United States which he describes so well.  “Some lands are flat and grass covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time.  Some are torn, ravaged, and convulsed like the features of profane old age.”

His writings have been called the musings of an “imaginative naturalist” looking for some deeper meaning or message in the fossil record as well as in the contemporary natural world.  The book includes but is not limited to the history of our understanding of the evolution of man.  There are diverse and beautiful chapters entitled “How Flowers Changed the World”, “The Dream Animal”, Little Men and Flying Saucers”, The Judgement of Birds”, The Bird and the Machine”, and “The Secret of Life”.

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Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

You might wonder what all this has to do with birds and a birding blog, but avian evolution and Eiseley’s bird encounters do figure in the story.  He describes southward migrating warblers passing overhead at sunset while he hunts fossils in the otherwise nearly lifeless Badlands.  There are the observation of the pigeons at dawn high on the rooftops of Manhattan and the surprising close encounter with the crow in the fog, described by me in the 4/7/2016 post, “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind”.  All these seemingly mundane episodes have some deeper significance for this author.

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Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Eiseley’s writing style is rich and contemplative.  He is an evolutionist but not dogmatic.  He asks many more questions than has answers and openly wonders about “a ghost in the machine”.  His science of accumulating and cataloging specimens and testing hypotheses is supplemented by moving passages about the meaning of it all.

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Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Many of my favorite sections describe his field work hunting fossils, often working alone in the central plains.  He relates an episode of floating on his back down the shallow Platte River, melding with the eroding sands of mountains making their way to the Gulf.  Another scene describes his capture of a male sparrow hawk for a local zoo as its mate escapes his grasp.  After a night of guilt and contemplation Eiseley releases the male in the morning who flies joyously to join his mate, still soaring high overhead in anticipation of such a reunion.  All these events become grist for the imaginative naturalist’s prose.

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California Towhee, Pipilo crissalis

In one section he explains that evolution is not done and not complete with us or other life forms.  “There are things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat.  It pays to know this.  It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past.  The only thing that doesn’t pay is to be sure of man’s own part in it.  There are still things coming ashore.  Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity…then you miss it all.”

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

Eiseley describes with amazement the relatively rapid evolution of man and his brain.  “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself…”, but in the chapter called “Man of the Future” he cautions, “The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear.  The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly.  It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

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Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

Don’t you hate it when someone recommends a book using the superlatives such as “classic”, “best ever”, “greatest one I’ve ever read”, etc.  I hesitate to do that with this book, but just remember, I have read and reread it countless times over 50 years.  That says something.  In one of Loren Eiseley’s other books he describes perching on his father’s shoulder and watching in wonder the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910.  He hoped he would live long enough to see its return again in 1986 after its long celestial orbit.  Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it as he died in 1977.  If its any consolation to him, his writings survive and continue to inspire.

Key West

Brown Pelican, Pelicans occidentalis

 

John James Audubon, Henry Flagler, Ernest Hemingway, Harry Truman, and Joseph Long are all notable people, each with a different life story that brought them to Key West, at our nation’s southernmost point.  My recent trip to the island allowed me to reflect on each of them, relax with family in this small corner of paradise, and do a little birding.

Sunset in the Keys

Key West sits at the literal end of the road, the last stop.  The remote tropical setting has attracted travelers, including writers, drifters, gawkers, and pirates for years.  In the mid 19th century it was actually the largest city in sparsely settled Florida. I had previously driven the spectacular highway bridging key after key, but last month we opted for the high speed ferry from Marco Island.

J.J. Audubon’s Osprey

The Audubon House in Key West is somewhat of a misnomer, as historians have learned that the famous birder spent a few days at this site in 1832, but the house itself was built after his short stay.  Be that as it may, the beautifully restored period house is filled with Audubon’s phenomenal artwork and the museum shop on the grounds gives one the opportunity to own one of his prints.  Notables of his Florida birds includes the Osprey, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, and the Spoonbill, which he called a Roseate Curlew.  Remember, he birded in the pre-binocular era, shooting his birds before posing them dead for his paintings.

John James Audubon

One theme of the history of the Florida Keys is the periodic hurricanes that devastate the low-lying islands, and man’s persistent, almost fool hearted rebuilding, in preparation for the next inevitable onslaught.  Henry Flagler’s railroad from Miami to Key West was the epitome of that persistence as several powerful storms delayed this monumental project.

Audubon’s Snowy Egret

You might say that Flagler was the builder of modern Florida, at least the east coast.  He made his fortune as John D. Rockefeller’s partner in Standard Oil of New Jersey, but spent most of his later years at his various Florida ventures.  Building a railroad down the east coast of Florida in small sections and planting a luxury resort hotel at each terminus was his successful strategy in bringing the well-heeled Easterners and their cash to the sunshine state.  His last and greatest challenge was to connect Miami with Key West by rail, an engineering feat for the ages.  Read Les Standiford’s riveting book, “Last Train to Paradise” for this story.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

The final track was laid in 1912 as a satisfied and elderly Henry Flagler rode the first train into town amidst a joyous celebration.  But Mother Nature was not done with the keys.  The severe unnamed Labor Day hurricane of 1935 flattened the islands, the railroad, its bridges, and everything else in its path.  Today one can still see the Stonehenge-like remains of the trestles from Highway 1.  The railroad was never rebuilt.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway, an injured ambulance driver from World War I left the expatriate crowd in Paris and arrived in Key West with wife Pauline in 1928.  He finished the classic “A Farewell to Arms” in his first weeks on the island.  Their house and its artifacts are well-worth your visit.  The hedonistic life style of Key West seemed to suit him well and evidence of those 12 years of writing, fishing, and partying are all apparent in their restored home on Whitehead Street.

Key West Rooster

My recent trip to Key West was not, strictly speaking, a birding excursion, but you birders all know the drill.  Carry the binoculars at all times and sneak in an early morning trek while your travel companions are still sleeping or reading the NY Times at the local coffee shop.  If roosters are your target bird, you are in luck as they awaken you each morning and seem to be taking over the town.  More serious birding is done at Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.  Its varied habitat is a magnet for migrants as well as the more common south Florida birds.  Visit http://www.keysaudubon.org for a good list of the local birding sites.

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

By November of 1946 President Harry Truman was exhausted.  The war was over but the doctor’s orders were for a warm, southern vacation.  He chose the former officer’s quarters at the Key West Submarine Naval Base, hereafter known as the “Little White House”.  It worked like a charm as he visited it for 175 days on 11 occasions during the remainder of his presidency.  It’s now a museum with excellent docents.

Double-crested Cormorant. Phalacrocorax auritus

I’ll conclude this post with Joseph Long’s story–you probably have not heard of him.  He was one of the countless patriots that volunteered to serve in World War II.  At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Navy and was shipped to the South Pacific, serving as a gunnery mate on an LST, nicknamed by its sailors as a “Large Slow Target”.  He did his part in the closing campaign of Okinawa and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered.  He concluded his service mustering out his colleagues at the relative paradise of the Naval Base at Key West.

Joseph, on the left, with buddies at Key West

Joseph Long

Thirty years later I had the good fortune to marry Joe’s daughter, and after another 38 years she and I were privileged to escort him back to Key West to visit the old Naval Base one last time.  The current Naval Air Station rolled out the red carpet for Joe, welcoming him as another revered member of that “Greatest Generation”.  As most of his fellow vets, he didn’t speak much about those war years, but you could sense his rekindled memories of those consequential days as we toured the site.  Joe is no longer with us, but our memories of him were renewed during my recent trip to Key West with his daughter, daughter-in-law, and son.

Joseph with daughter, Suzanne at Key West

Bird Banding

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

 

When I told a friend I was writing a post about bird banding he immediately conjured up his musical past and famous bird bands:  the Eagles, the Dixie Chicks, and Sheryl Crow.  And don’t forget to mention Jay and the Americans, he quipped.  That’s how his clever mind works, but this is about bird banding, not bands.  Maybe bird bands will be a topic for a later day.

Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas

I was only too happy to accept an invitation from Gene & Mary, the hosts of the erstwhile nuthatch family, to accompany them to the Chester River Field Research Station (CRFRS), last month to observe a bird banding operation during spring migration.  I had previously witnessed raptors captured in baited nets and banded at Cape May, New Jersey, but had never seen songbird banding up close.  http://www.washcoll.edu/centers/ces/crfrs

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

CRFRS is in the River and Field Campus of Washington College, an extensive 4700 acres of mixed habitat along 2.5 miles of the Chester River, a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.  The site includes riverine, freshwater ponds, marsh, grasssland and wooded habitats, all just a 10 mile drive from the main college campus in Chestertown, Maryland.

A long dirt road through the woods leads to a small clearing and humble white shed with a “James Gruber Birding Laboratory” sign posted proudly over the door.  Mr. Gruber himself and field ecologist Maren Gimpel greeted us warmly and gave an introductory explanation of the operation.  One immediately grasped that these were dedicated and knowledgeable ornithologists and teachers leading a small team of enthusiastic students and volunteers.  All were more than willing to answer our many questions about their work.

The interior of the “lab” itself was a crowded but efficient workplace.  The workbench by the windows was where the banding took place, with clipboards, calipers, scales, and other tools-of-the-trade apparent.  Along the rafters hung the small white sacs containing the captured birds from the last run, waiting to be banded, measured, and released.  There was a large bookcase containing records, textbooks, and bird guides (their favorite seemed to be Sibley’s).  On the wall hung large maps of the U.S. and Western Hemisphere with colored pushpins  marking the sights of origin of captured and previously banded birds.  A white board listed the spring arrivals for 2018.

The banding operation for the day started long before we arrived.    The fine mesh mist nets were hung along strategic pathways in various habitats at dawn and monitored at least every hour to retrieve captured birds.  The directors asked us not to photograph birds in the net for fear some might think the process cruel.  I can assure you that these people used the utmost of gentle care untangling the birds and released them ASAP back into the wild, none the worse for wear.

Wood Thrush, Hylocichla mustelina

Our knowledge of bird migration has been refined over the centuries.  Completely unaware of migration, Aristotle thought Redstarts turned into Robins, and Garden Warblers into Blackcaps each winter.  For years people thought Swallows hibernated and in the 16th century fishermen reportedly caught the torpid swallows in their nets.  In the 17th century Englishman Charles Morton decided birds must indeed migrate, but he claimed their destination was the moon!

Banding has enlightened us to the specifics of migration.  Audubon tied silver thread to the leg of an Eastern Phoebe to see if the same bird returned to his farm each year.  Hans Mortensen first used aluminum leg rings on Starlings in 1899, and Leon Cole  founded the American Bird Banding Association in 1909.  In 2017 CRFRS banded 14,757 birds of 128 different species.  Even though the recovery rate of banded songbirds is very low, (less than 1%), much can be learned about migration, shifting populations, and the health of the various species from this data.

Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

“Recovery” may take many forms.  It may be the netting of a hapless bird previously banded the day before, or a migrant returning to its breeding ground or just passing through.  It may be a bird banded elsewhere, hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  Some recoveries are by astute birders able to read the band numbers with a scope or telephoto lens, but often the recoveries are of dead birds, perhaps found as road kill, victims of window strikes, or even just old age.  A notable recovery of 2017 was an Osprey found dead in Venezuela, previously banded at CRFRS in June, 2003.

Indigo Bunting, Passerina cyanea

I found that walking the mist nets with the guides to be exciting, much like a child with “visions of sugar plums” on Christmas Eve.   You could see a netted bird from a distance and approached anxious to see it up close and try to identify it while the guide untangled and bagged the quarry.  An Indigo Bunting, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Magnolia Warbler, and Wood Thrush at two feet are truly a marvel.  Even the common Gray Catbird has its own subtle beauty at that proximity.

Banding an American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Back at the shack the birds are fitted with the appropriate sized leg band, weighed, measured, and sexed if possible.  Breeding males often have a prominent protuberance at the vent, visible when feathers are brushed aside.  Age determination, (juvenile, first year, or adult) can often be determined by plumage.  Fat deposits on the breast are signs of a healthy well-fed bird.  All of this is painstakingly recorded.  A highlight for us observers is when the guides finally handed us a bird, light as a feather, to be released back into the wild.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Archilochus colubris

Two things stand out in my mind from the visit to CRFRS.  Its one thing to see these birds with binoculars and photography, but entirely different to hold these small gems in your hands or hear the rapid humming of the Hummingbird heartbeat in your ear.  The other lasting impression is of the knowledge and palpable enthusiasm that both the leaders and young students have for ornithology, and their obvious delight in sharing their expertise with others.  We were grateful beneficiaries of their mastery that day.

Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

Published by Doubleday, copyright 2017, 427 pages.

 

My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Painted Bunting, Passerina iris                 click to zoom

The lovely light of the candle is synonymous with the lives of the bizarre and beautiful birds.  One pathway of evolution has resulted in the male’s flamboyant colors, tempting ornaments, and loud love songs, all to impress the female, even at the expense of his survival.  The other more conservative pathway has led to identical males and females of subtle camouflage coloration; the keep-your-head-down, blend in, and stay safe approach to life, with survival being the ultimate goal.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

The conservative approach follows the classic science of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.  Darwin, however, later decided that a different theory was needed to explain the evolution of beauty; a process resulting in the dramatic bright plumages, long tails, striking crests, and unusual courtship behaviors.  The aesthetic evaluation of mate choice and pleasure become the goal of these birds, apparently trumping survival determined by the classic idea of fitness.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Richard Prum expertly describes the consternation and debate that Darwin caused in his lifetime over the concept of evolution by sexual selection, a debate that has lasted to the present.  The author takes up Darwin’s fight and supports his argument with fascinating accounts of avian courtship, emphasizing the central role of the female choosing a mate purely for the pleasure of it.  Detractors say that assigning charm, sensory delight, and aesthetic discernment to birds is far too anthropomorphic.  Darwin and Prum disagree.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

It was the elaborate beauty of the Peacock’s tail with its eyespots that was so unsettling to Darwin.  How could his “Origin of Species” and survival of the fittest explain this impractical plumage?  His second book, “The Descent of Man”, introduced sexual pleasure and female choice as new and different driving forces in evolution.  As you can imagine, Victorian patriarchal England had significant issues with this revolutionary concept.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Prum has impressive credentials, first as a childhood birder from New England, then from years of fieldwork in the tropical jungles, and later as a professor of ornithology at Yale.  In the chapter “Beauty From the Beast” he describes the male Bowerbirds and their construction of architecturally elaborate bowers or bachelor pads.  These males build competing aesthetic structures which have no practical use other than to charm and attract a female mate.  The evolving male animal artists must match the corresponding evolution of female preference for their art to be successful.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The fossil record raises some interesting ideas about the origin of colorful feathers.  It seems that feathers evolved and adorned reptiles prior to other structural changes that would allow flight.  Recently electron microscopy has shown tiny color-forming melanosomes in the feathers of the theropod dinosaurs.  Were these early colorful feathers initially sexual ornaments that only later evolved to the avian structures of flight?

Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus

In the chapter “Manakin Dances” Prum describes the bizarre social world of South American Manakin leks.  A lek is a small, male-defended patch chosen as his personal stage upon which he performs to lure females.  The male, in turn, is chosen for mating by a discerning female who is impressed by his plumage ornaments, acrobatic displays, dancing skills, and acoustic signals.  It is female choice that drives male behavior and sexual evolution.

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

So why do I give this book only 4 stars out of 5?  To me the wheels seemed to come off a bit in Chapter 5, “Make Way For Duck Sex”.  The description of the ducks’ displays, female and male urogenital tracts (males are endowed with a long retractile penis), and the description of copulation, both consensual and otherwise, were fascinating.  But the author at this point begins to enter into a highly speculative correlation of avian behavior with human sexuality, including female autonomy, feminism, fashion, eugenics, and even homosexuality.  Although these are worthwhile topics, the jump from avian evolution which occurs over millions of years to human sociology and cultural evolution, which may change yearly, seemed somewhat farfetched and out of place.

Yellow Warbler, Wilsonia citrina

But this book will have great appeal for birders and non-birders alike.  As I read other reviewers it is clear that birders favor the first half of the book and its wonderful accounts of avian behavior, while non-birders relish the second half which evolves into a parallel discussion of human sexuality and social issues.  Clearly the book will foster many interesting discussions and I can picture it as a popular book club selection.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The next time I am traipsing through the underbrush and see the brilliant crimson flash of the male Cardinal, the iridescent body of the Hummingbird, or hear the loud melodic call of the Carolina wren, I’ll remember Darwin and Prum and the millions of years of sexual selection that have created pleasure for both the birds and the birder.

Don’t You Wish You Could Molt?

Osprey, Pandion haliaetus

 

The late August birding in my patch was slow, very slow.  When that happens you can always resort to photographing butterflies, moths and plants, but where were all the birds?  There were several possible explanations.  Fighting over territories, mates, and nesting sites were yesterday’s battles.  The birds are now more interested in fattening up for winter or migration.  Almost all the new birds had already fledged while the swallows had left the patch and were flocking inland prior to their trip south.  The maniacal keeehahh of the perching Red-tailed Hawk may have had something to do with the quiet, but it was more a threat to the squirrels and rabbits who were having a banner year, than to the songbirds.

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Then it occurred to me.  Maybe they were molting, molting in private, hiding in their embarrassing and more vulnerable states.  I don’t know about you, but molting has always confused me.  Consider this post as a back-to-school course, Molting 101; my attempt to shed some light on this critical avian process.

Tiger Swallowtail, Pterourus glaucus

American Painted Lady, Vanessa virginiensis

Canada Thistle, Cirsium arvense

Feathers are dead appendages with no innervation or blood flow.  They are an amazing and complex adaptation for flight, insulation, and display, but their fragility necessitates periodic replacement.  They can be preened, cleaned, and rearranged, but they cannot be repaired.  Every feather has a rudimentary replacement in its follicle waiting for a stimulus to grow and push out the worn, frayed, precursor.  The simple annual cycle for birds is to breed, molt, and survive the winter or migration, and then start the same cycle next year, all over again.

Magnolia Warbler, Dendroica magnolia

Two sets of terminology are used to describe molting and the resultant plumages.  This adds to my confusion.  The traditional, used since 1900, describes the adult’s two plumages as “winter” and “breeding”.  Shortcomings of this system occur since many of our birds winter and may breed in South America where it is actually summer.  And other young birds in breeding plumage may not actually breed for several years.  Thus, in 1959 the second and preferred terminology was proposed.  In this system adult birds molt into their “basic” plumage just after breeding, and then in spring will molt into their “alternative” plumage, prior to breeding.

Verdin, Auriparus flaviceps

But it gets more complicated as each bird species has its own molting schedule and various numbers of yearly molts depending on its lifestyle.  Sedentary arboreal birds may stick to the standard molting script, whereas birds attempting long difficult migrations, or those living in harsh environments such as a desert or the Arctic, may undertake more frequent molts.  Birds wintering in cold climates may add up to 50% more feathers to their basic plumage compared to the alternate garb.  All this for added insulation and winter survival.

Chestnut-sided Warbler, Dendroica pensylvanica

Then there are the juveniles who molt out of their natal down into a juvenile plumage before fledging, and later molt into the adult basic plumage.  The progression to adult may occur in the first year for many, or may be spread over several years as seen in the gulls. They molt into first, second, and third winter, and for some even fourth winter plumages before obtaining the basic plumage.

Black-throated Green Warbler, Dendroica virens

Birds have evolved two major molting strategies.  Ducks, loons, grebes and others are called synchronous molters and get it done, all feathers, all at once.  This results in a month of flightless vulnerability often spent on an isolated pond or lake away from predators, but does not interfere with flight or life for the remainder of the year.  The other strategy is to gradually molt a few feathers at a time in a defined reproducible sequence, specific for each species.  This method has a minimal impact on flight and other routines of life.

American Goldfinch, Carduelis tristis

Molting is one of the most energetically costly events in a bird’s life.  It generally, therefore, does not overlap with the other demanding activities of reproduction and migration.  There are some examples, however, when molting does occur simultaneously with egg laying and incubation, but in these circumstances the molting process is much prolonged.  Very little is known about what factors trigger a molt.  A single lost feather is rather quickly replaced, but what triggers a generalized molt?  One theory suggests it is related to the changing length of daylight.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

My philosophy for understanding molting, and just about everything else is “KISS” (Keep It Simple Stupid).  So with that in mind, just remember that most of our birds have their most important molt in late summer, after breeding, replacing all their flight and body feathers with basic plumage in preparation for either winter or migration.  They will also undergo a second, partial, prenuptial molt in spring, often into a striking, colorful alternative plumage, enhancing their breeding opportunities.

American Robin, Turdus migratorius (in juvenile plumage)

Don’t you wish you could molt, or maybe you do?  I keep one basic and practical wardrobe, only requiring some minor cleaning and preening, and the alternative wardrobe for “date night” or other special occasions.  This latter plumage, like the birds, is colorful and designed to impress and turn heads.  Don’t I wish.

 

Our Flying Feathered Dinosaurs

Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

 

 

The guttural squawk of the spooked Great Blue Heron as he arose from the shore of the brackish swamp took me back 200 million years, until my ringing cell phone jarred me back to the present.  I suspect that the heron somewhat resembles its Mesozoic ancestors;  large bird with wide wingspan and slow, flapping, straight line flight.  But who knows for sure?  The fossil record is spotty and the origin of birds has been hotly debated in academia for centuries.  This is not a “settled science”.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Remember the Genesis story.  Then God said, “Let the waters swarm with fish and other life.  Let the skies be filled with the birds of every kind, each producing offspring of the same kind”…And God saw that it was good.   It was and is very good.

GBH, click on any to zoom

In the 18th century some thought that fish and their scales were the precursor of the birds and their feathers, but by the mid 19th century scientists began to notice the many reptilian characteristics of birds.  Note the common three fingers hidden by the wing, and just substitute the heavy teeth with a lighter beak, add some feathers, and you have a bird.  But its not that easy.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

 

A big break came in 1861, just two years after the publication of the “Origin of Species” by Darwin, when Archaeopteryx (Greek for “ancient wing”) was uncovered in a limestone quarry in Bavaria.  This 150 million year old Crow-sized fossil had the tail, spine, and claws of a reptile, but the wishbone and feathers of a bird.  Was this the transitional link?  Let the debate begin.

Archaeopteryx lithographica

The fossilization of birds is a very rare event.  Birds have thin, hollow bones and delicate feathers.  For a fossil to form the sediment must be oxygen-free and very fine in order to bring out the subtle detail of soft tissues and feathers.  That’s why Archaeopteryx was so exciting.  Later, in 1926 Heilmann published “The Origin of Birds” which suggested that birds and dinosaurs were related and shared a common bipedal reptilian ancestor 230 million years ago, but birds did not evolve from dinosaurs directly.

Great Egret, Ardea alba

Feathers evolved long before flight so clearly they must have offered some other survival advantage.  Many of the early feathered dinosaurs were much too heavy for flight and lacked other skeletal features that flight required.  The symmetrical dinosaur feather (birds have an asymmetric feather with a hollow core) were more likely used for insulation or for courtship display.  What female dino could possibly resist a male feather dance, or was it the female doing the dancing?  We’ll never know.

Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus, with unfortunate songbird in its talons.

Luckily there were numerous fossil discoveries in China and Spain in the late 20th century that shed new light on the origin question.  As a result, the current consensus is that birds did indeed evolve directly from Theropod dinosaurs, a group that includes the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, but also a group of smaller, lighter, bipedal, raptor-like “dromeosaurs” that share many characteristics with early birds.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Tryngites subruficollis

The early to mid Cenozoic Era (37 to 65 million years ago) was a heyday for the birds.  The evolution of angiosperms (flowers) and grasses, and the mild climate were ideal.  Its been estimated that since their origin in the Mesozoic Era the Earth has hosted 150 thousand different species of birds.  There were two mass extinctions, however, that severely thinned the ranks.  The earlier was in the Cretaceous Period and took out many groups of toothed, aquatic birds along with all the dinosaurs.  The latter was in the Pleistocene epoch, 1.5 million years ago, a time of great climate upheaval with ice and glaciers covering vast areas of North America.  Of the 21 thousand bird species present at the outset of that epoch, only 10 thousand remain today.

By 20 million years ago most of the modern bird families and genera had appeared, but what are the most ancient birds?  Which are the true “early birds” that have survived the longest?  Only two major bird groups date back to the late Cretaceous Period in the Mesozoic Era, 65+ million years ago.  They are the Suborder Charadrii (shorebirds and gulls), and the Super Family Procellarioidea (albatrosses and petrels).  The others all came later onto the scene.

Black-footed Albatross, Phoebastria nigripes

There’s something about the dinosaurs that fascinate children, including me.  They learn the long names in kindergarten and play with their plastic models.  Maybe its their size or power, or maybe its because they ruled the Earth for so long and then disappeared so quickly and mysteriously.  Was it a comet strike or something else?  In any case, I’m so happy that some of their feathered offspring survived and continue to bring us newcomers, Homo sapiens, much pleasure today in the Cenozoic Era, Quaternary Period, and Holocene Epoch.

Book Review: The Immense Journey, by Loren Eiseley

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Brown Pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis

 

The Immense Journey by Loren Eiseley, published by Random House, copyright 1957, 211 pages

People who are curious and inspired by our natural world can often look to another person, event, film, or book that first sparked that interest.  Candidates for books that potentially fit that bill include Walden by Thoreau (1854), the writings of John Muir about the Sierra Nevada around 1900, The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White describing in detail the geology, flora and fauna of his native southern England in the 18th century, and more recently Henry Beston’s The Outermost House (1928) chronicling a year on Cape Cod.  For me that spark occurred 50 years ago when I first read The Immense Journey.

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Bobolink, Dolichonyx oryzivorus   (click on photos to zoom)

Loren Eiseley was born to a homesteading family in Nebraska in 1907 and eventually rose to become the Head of the Department Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.  Much of his academic work involved searching for evidence of post-glacial man in the plains and mountains of the western United States which he describes so well.  “Some lands are flat and grass covered, and smile so evenly up at the sun that they seem forever youthful, untouched by man or time.  Some are torn, ravaged, and convulsed like the features of profane old age.”

His writings have been called the musings of an “imaginative naturalist” looking for some deeper meaning or message in the fossil record as well as in the contemporary natural world.  The book includes but is not limited to the history of our understanding of the evolution of man.  There are diverse and beautiful chapters entitled “How Flowers Changed the World”, “The Dream Animal”, Little Men and Flying Saucers”, The Judgement of Birds”, The Bird and the Machine”, and “The Secret of Life”.

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Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

You might wonder what all this has to do with birds and a birding blog, but avian evolution and Eiseley’s bird encounters do figure in the story.  He describes southward migrating warblers passing overhead at sunset while he hunts fossils in the otherwise nearly lifeless Badlands.  There are the observation of the pigeons at dawn high on the rooftops of Manhattan and the surprising close encounter with the crow in the fog, described by me in the 4/7/2016 post, “Close Encounters of the Bird Kind”.  All these seemingly mundane episodes have some deeper significance for this author.

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Wood Stork, Mycteria americana

Eiseley’s writing style is rich and contemplative.  He is an evolutionist but not dogmatic.  He asks many more questions than has answers and openly wonders about “a ghost in the machine”.  His science of accumulating and cataloging specimens and testing hypotheses is supplemented by moving passages about the meaning of it all.

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Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Many of my favorite sections describe his field work hunting fossils, often working alone in the central plains.  He relates an episode of floating on his back down the shallow Platte River, melding with the eroding sands of mountains making their way to the Gulf.  Another scene describes his capture of a male sparrow hawk for a local zoo as its mate escapes his grasp.  After a night of guilt and contemplation Eiseley releases the male in the morning who flies joyously to join his mate, still soaring high overhead in anticipation of such a reunion.  All these events become grist for the imaginative naturalist’s prose.

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California Towhee, Pipilo crissalis

In one section he explains that evolution is not done and not complete with us or other life forms.  “There are things brewing and growing in the oceanic vat.  It pays to know this.  It pays to know there is just as much future as there is past.  The only thing that doesn’t pay is to be sure of man’s own part in it.  There are still things coming ashore.  Never make the mistake of thinking life is now adjusted for eternity…then you miss it all.”

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

Eiseley describes with amazement the relatively rapid evolution of man and his brain.  “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself…”, but in the chapter called “Man of the Future” he cautions, “The need is not really for more brains, the need is now for a gentler, a more tolerant people than those who won for us against the ice, the tiger, and the bear.  The hand that hefted the ax, out of some blind allegiance to the past fondles the machine gun as lovingly.  It is a habit man will have to break to survive, but the roots go very deep.”

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Prairie Warbler, Dendroica discolor

Don’t you hate it when someone recommends a book using the superlatives such as “classic”, “best ever”, “greatest one I’ve ever read”, etc.  I hesitate to do that with this book, but just remember, I have read and reread it countless times over 50 years.  That says something.  In one of Loren Eiseley’s other books he describes perching on his father’s shoulder and watching in wonder the passage of Halley’s Comet in 1910.  He hoped he would live long enough to see its return again in 1986 after its long celestial orbit.  Unfortunately he didn’t quite make it as he died in 1977.  If its any consolation to him, his writings survive and continue to inspire.

Who Named That Bird Anyway?

 

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Green Heron                                                click on any photo to zoom

I was standing on a wooden observation deck overlooking a pond in the Florida cypress swamp when an inquisitive new birder asked me the name of the brown bird posed a low branch over the water.  “Oh, that’s a Green Heron.”  A look of confusion came over her face.  “I know”, I added  “someday we’ll figure out who named the bird anyway.”  A more descriptive name might be a Brown or Hunch-backed Heron.  There are other bird names that cause similar confusion.

Take for instance the Ovenbird.  Where did that name come from?  My research fails me.  Why not a sink, refrigerator, or stove bird?  Linnaeus gave it the species name aurocapilla which means “golden-haired” in Latin.  That makes much more sense to me.

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Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla), note the golden hair

Then there’s the Veery, a member of the Turdidae or Thrush family.  Don’t you have to be very something, like very big, or very loud, or very good?  Research in this instance did help.  The name is derived from the downward veering sound of its call.  I can live with that.

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I have no Veery picture but these are Rufous-bellied Thrush photographed in Buenos Aires.

What about the Tattler?  That was the very worst thing you could be called when I was in elementary school, right up there with stool pigeon.  Yet someone gave this west coast shorebird, a member of the Scolopacidae family, this derogatory name.  Let me know if anyone is aware of the back story here.

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Long-billed Dowitcher, a fellow Scolopacidae

Then there are the “P” birds, Phainopepla and Pyrrhuloxia.  Try pronouncing or spelling these to the new birder in the field.  If you are Greek however, it’s no problem and the names make perfect sense.  Phainopepla is the furthest northern member of the Central American Ptilogonatidae or Silky Flycatcher family.  Phain pepla is from the Greek meaning “shining robe”.  Given the appearance in my shot below this finally makes some sense.

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Phainopepla (shining robe)

Pyrrhuloxia is also from the Greek; pyrrhus meaning red and loxos meaning oblique, and referring to the peculiar short crooked bill of this bird of the southwest desert.  I prefer the sometimes used “desert cardinal”.

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Pyrrhuloxia (female, the male would have much more red around the face and breast)

Another puzzler is the Godwit, pictured below.  A little internet research took me to an etymology expert Ted Nesbitt.  He claims this bird’s name first appeared in the European literature in Latin about 1544 as “Godwittam” and later translated into English as “Godwitte”.    “Wit” means “to know” making Godwit, “to know God”.  Still unanswered is how this explains the bird’s saintly name.  As Nesbitt said, “God only knows.”

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Marbled Godwit                                            photo by Andy Sternick

Have you ever been called a Booby in the school yard?  That’s right up there with “tattler” on the list of childhood insults.  The bird name comes from the Spanish slang “bobo”, meaning stupid.  Apparently these people-friendly and naive birds would land on the Spanish ships in the Caribbean and were easily captured and served as dinner.

blue footed booby

Blue-footed Boobies                                           photo by Andy Sternick

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Masked Booby, perhaps trying to deceive the Spaniards, photo by Andy Sternick

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Bananaquit                                                      photo by Andy Sterrnick

I’ll quit with the Bananaquit, a beautiful bird of the New World tropics first described by Linnaeus in 1758.  They apparently love bananas and once they start eating they just can’t…

Spring Migration Stopover, Dry Tortugas

Upland Sandpipers, James Audubon

Upland Sandpipers, John James Audubon

It is early March of 2010 and in the Pampas of Argentina, the land of the Gaucho, the days are growing shorter and the nights longer. The wheat crop has been harvested and the Upland Sandpiper has taken refuge in the remaining wheat stubble.  Life is changing for the sandpiper in ways she does not understand.  She’s putting on weight, she’s more irritable, and the cooler nights are no longer comfortable.  Suddenly, one evening, without any formal announcement the excited flock of sandpipers takes flight and heads north.  The long trip has begun.

The Upland Sandpiper is a long distance migrator, leaving the non-breeding grounds in Argentina’s grasslands in March and early April and flying northward over Central America and Mexico.  The usual path takes them overland, west of the Gulf of Mexico, to Texas and north to the preferred breeding grounds of the upper Great Plains and southern Canada.  Only a few will breed in the Mid-Atlantic states and eastern Canada.

Was it a sudden violent storm separating her from the flock, a memory of prior flight paths, a derangement of her internal compass, or just an urge to set out further to the east?  Whatever the cause the Upland Sandpiper found herself over the vast Gulf of Mexico, fighting a cross wind, with no land in sight, and all alone.  Thirty-six hours of this non-stop flight to the northeast took its toll.  Her weight was down and she was getting dehydrated and weaker, when seemingly out of nowhere she was joined by a mixed flock of wood warblers, all heading in her direction.  Being in a flock again was encouraging, but the best surprise was the small island they led her to, barely visible ahead on the pristine aqua water.  But this was no ordinary island.  It periphery was guarded by the brick walls of an old fort, and there was a tour boat at its dock, and people walking all around the central courtyard and snorkeling in the shallows.  No matter; for the sandpiper it was rest, food, water, and renewed life.

Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

Also in 2010 four of us decided to supplement a trip to the Florida Keys with a day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park, about 68 miles west of the Key West in the Gulf of Mexico.  This small archipelago of coral islands was discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the abundant turtles (tortugas).  The “dry” modifier was added later to warn mariners that the island contained no fresh water source.  The site has much to offer today.  For my history-minded non-birder friends the large Fort Jefferson was constructed from brick in 1847 to guard our southern coast, but never completely finished.  A tour through its chambers and grounds was rewarding.  John James Audubon visited the island for several days in 1832 and painted several birds on site.  Its most famous resident was Doctor Samuel Mudd who was held captive in the prison as a coconspirator for the killing of Abraham Lincoln.  His heroic action nursed the fort’s inhabitants through a yellow fever epidemic and he was later pardoned by Andrew Johnson in 1869.

Brown Pelican,  J. J. Audubon

Brown Pelican, J. J. Audubon

For me though, it was all about the birds.  Our crossing was a little rough and several of us were a tad green, but the great thing about seasickness is it is cured quickly on terra firma.  As we were leaving the boat and recovering one of the rangers called out, “Upland Sandpiper spotted in the fort!” I joined a small stampede of birders and was rewarded.  There she was, with that characteristic upright pose, resting on the green parade ground. We gave her some deserved space, realizing this bird must have made an amazing journey to end up here, on Dry Tortugas, still only halfway to her final destination.

Upland Sandpiper

Upland Sandpiper

Only eight birds commonly nest in the National Park, but 299 species have been recorded there, using the islands as a migratory rest stop, peaking in April each year.  The eight nesting birds are Brown Pelican, Roseate Tern, Bridled Tern, Mourning Dove, and the only nesting colonies in the United States for Sooty Tern, Brown Noddy, Magnificent Frigatebird and Masked Booby.  Birding on the island is conveniently compact.  There was a small stone fountain centrally placed on the parade ground between seaside mahoe and buttonwood trees, supplying the needed freshwater for the birds.  I saw several warblers at the fountain.  The fort’s ramparts were a good spot to see and photograph the soaring Magnificent Frigatebirds, pelicans and terns.  The approach to the dock is the best chance of seeing the nesting Sooty Terns and other birds on the adjacent Bush Key.

Magnificent Frigatebird

Magnificent Frigatebird

The trip was memorable for several reasons.  First, I saw 10 life birds including my Upland Sandpiper.  Secondly, I learned I needed a new camera.  My birding and photography friend had been pressing me to ditch the point-and-shot and go DSLR.  His pictures from the Dry Tortugas were much better than mine, as you can probably see in this post.  That day was the last hurrah for the old camera and a new world of photography opened up.  Lastly I learned a lesson from that sandpiper.  Sometimes if you take the road less travelled and buffet the wind and stormy seas, you may end up at a beautiful island in the sun.

Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary

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The shots came from the direction of the rookery.  Guy Bradley didn’t hesitate as he checked his rifle, pushed the skiff into the water, and went to investigate.  Although he hoped otherwise, he feared the shots were from plume hunters making another assault on the rookery where the snowy egrets, ibises, and herons were abundant targets.  Hired in 1902 he was a deputy of the American Ornithologists’ Union and himself a converted plume hunter, but now, at age 35, sworn to protect the Florida birds from these poachers.  As he warily approached rookery he was not surprised to see Walter Smith and his two sons loading the dead birds into their boat.  He had previously arrested them for poaching and was aware of their threats if he ever tried to arrest them again.  Unfortunately they fulfilled their threat and Bradley’s body was found by his brothers the next day in the bottom of his boat.

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Victorian Plume Hat

 

The Bradley family moved to South Florida from Chicago in 1876 when Guy was 6 years old.  Instead of the more common westward migration of the era, they joined others looking to make their fortunes in railroad and real estate development in the undeveloped swamps and marshland of Florida.  As a teenager Guy worked as a fishing and hunting guide and became a scout for the noted French plume hunter Jean Chevalier.  The plumes, especially those acquired with the birds in full mating glory, brought prices of more than $20 an ounce, more than the price of gold, in the New York millinery industry of the late 19th and early 20th century.  The fashion was for large, gaudy hats, adorned with feathers, and sometimes even the whole stuffed bird.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

The Lacey Act of 1900 outlawed the trafficking of illegally acquired wildlife and recognized the stresses on the wading birds of Florida.  The roots of the early conservation movement began to take hold.  Game warden Bradley had the almost impossible task of covering a territory extending from Miami, across the Great Cypress Swamp and Everglades to 10,000 Islands on the west coast, and south to Key West.  His early work in educating the public, enforcing the law, and resulting murder made him the first martyr of the early conservation movement.  Eventually changes in fashion, further laws, better enforcement, and the efforts of the National Audubon Society and others finally brought this sorry chapter to a close.

Corkscrew Boardwalk

Corkscrew Boardwalk

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, an 13,000 acre preservation of unspoiled Southwest Florida in the western Everglades wetland, is a monument to those early conservation successes, but the story doesn’t end with the control of the plume hunters.  The history of Florida is also about ongoing water management issues; the damming, draining, rerouting, and utilization of fresh water.  Its about its natural resources, mining, logging the bald cypress forests, and the vast sugar cane and citrus plantations. Its about finding a formula for sustainable population growth and development, while preserving some of our past.

Blue Flag Iris

Blue Flag Iris

Corkscrew has been at the forefront of these effort since was acquired by the Audubon Society in 1954.  Starting in the 1930’s  the development of railroads in South Florida made the logging of the Bald Cypress forests feasible.  The hard wood was valuable and much was shipped to Europe for reconstruction of that continent following World War II.  With the loggers getting ever closer to the Corkscrew and its large stand of virgin trees dating back 500-600 years, the Audubon Society was able to acquire the property and save the forest.

Boardwalk across the Wet Prairie

Boardwalk across the Wet Prairie

Early development in South Florida was understandably all about draining the central swamps.  The only land high enough for initial settlement was the narrow highlands along each coast.  From as far north as present day Orlando the rain and ground water flowed south to massive Lake Okeechobee, which periodically flooded its southern banks, creating a massive “river of grass” supplying the Cypress Swamp and Everglades with fresh water, but making central Florida inaccessible. The fall was only 2 inches per mile, but just enough to allow the inexorable flow of water to the south creating in the words of forester Gifford Pinchot, “a region so different that it hardly seems to belong to the United States.  It is full of the most vivid and interesting life on land, in the air, and in the water.  It is a land of strangeness, separate and apart from the common things we all know so well.”

Gator in the salad soup

Gator in the salad soup

The last quarter of the 20th century was all about the restoration of this southern flow of water, previously disrupted by dams, dikes, and canals, in hopes of saving the Everglades and Cypress Swamp.  The Corkscrew Sanctuary has benefited from this renewed supply of water and today has the largest stand of old growth Bald Cypress in the world.  It is home to the largest nesting colony of Wood Storks in North America, countless other wading birds, and other subtropical fauna and flora.

Cypress Stand

Cypress Stand

I’m a member of Corkscrew Sanctuary and usually visit 4 or 5 times a year.  On my last visit I decided to leave the telephoto bird lens home and take some wider angle views of this wonderful site for this post.  As luck would have it the fog rolled in that morning, but it did create an ephemeral mood, so fitting to this place.  I’ll create a later post specifically about my experiences Birding Corkscrew.

If your interested in further reading about the plume hunters I recommend Death in the Everglades:  The Murder of Guy Bradley, America’s First Martyr to Environmentalism, by Stuart B. McIver.