Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Review: The Wonderful Mr Willughby

Tim Birkhead is an English ornithologist and author, about whose books on bird biology and behavior I’ve written enthusiastically in the past. Now he’s back with something a little different – a biography of an underappreciated genius, Francis Willughby, whose contributions to bird study at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution helped to create a more reliable and empirical framework for studying and understanding birds than anything that had existed up to that time.

In The Wonderful Mr Willughby: The First True Ornithologist, Birkhead makes the case for reevaluating Willughby’s role within the history of natural history. Because he died at such an early age, 36, before he was able to publish his own findings his legacy was left in the hands of his friend and collaborator, John Ray, who typically receives the lion’s share of credit for the groundbreaking work, Ornithology, written after Willughby’s death. But much, if not most, of the new ground broken in Ornithology came from Willughby’s insights.

Because Willughby’s journals have been lost over the centuries, there’s less firsthand information available than one would hope. But Birkhead does a really excellent job of setting the scene: what was the state of knowledge during the middle of the 17th Century? How was science developing mere decades after Francis Bacon formulated his vision for experimental method? How did the English Civil War impact the universities and leading scholars? We’re also introduced to key figures in and around the orbit of the Royal Society, including a series of brief biographies included in an appendix.

Not to say that some additional context wouldn’t have been helpful. When Willughby and Ray embarked on a three-year collecting expedition through Europe, they were joined by Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon’s brief biography states simply that he was a Virginia colonist. In fact, he was the ringleader behind Bacon’s Rebellion, one of the most important events in colonial American history. But mostly, Birkhead connects the dots in really exciting ways. Like when he singles out certain items from Willughby’s cabinet of curiosities (including a collection of glass eyes), and traces where in his travels he was likely to have picked them up.

Even more impressive is that Birkhead was apparently able to work out what species Willughby and Ray were writing about, despite the local, now largely archaic, names they picked up along their journey. It’s a problem not dissimilar to what Willughby and Ray faced themselves when pouring over the manuscripts and artwork they collected over the course of their joint project, trying to match their own observations with those of earlier scholars.

Despite the title, Willughby wasn’t single-mindedly consumed by birds; he had energetic and wide-ranging interests and made significant contributions in a number of areas, including to the study of fish, insects, mathematics, and even games. He’s a fascinating figure, and this book is a window into a time when one person, albeit an exceptional person, could generalize across many different subjects and realistically claim expertise in all of them. Throughout The Wonderful Mr Willughby, it’s clear that his death at an early age was a huge loss for science as a whole, and for ornithology in particular.

Monday, August 20, 2018

In Search of the Gray Ghost

You know a birding trip is going to be good when you start at a sewage pond. That’s just what we did when we started our summer off with a trip to La Grande, OR for this past Memorial Day Weekend. Our main goal for this trip was lifer Great Gray Owls, but that would have to wait until the next morning. For now, we’d have to settle for good looks at Wilson’s Phalaropes and lots of Redheads and other waterfowl. The La Grande Sewage Ponds are a nice little stop to see ducks in this area. You can park and walk around the ponds, and it’s not smelly as the name would imply.

Wilson's Phalaropes

Wilson's Phalarope

Swainson's Hawk turning in preparation for a dive bomb. Amazing to see how focused his head is.

Black-Billed Magpie

House Wren

Fussy House Wren

Tree Swallow

A lovely Male Black-Headed Grosbeak

The Ladd Marsh Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is a 6,000+ acre area filled with marshes, wetlands, and prairies and is an amazing place to find birds. You can do a lot of birding from your car – a mobile blind. This is especially great for spotting and taking pics of the MANY Swainson’s Hawks around. It’s incredible to me to have them be the most abundant hawk in this area (at least at this time of year) other than Northern Harriers. As you can see, we got some really awesome views of them, maybe some a little bit more intimate than they would have liked.

Female Swainson's Hawk

How do you know it's a female Swai... Ooohhhh

A bit of an awkward encounter... for them and us

Still looking, you voyers?

All done

Swainson's Hawk

Swainson's Hawk

The utility lines were also speckled with Kingbirds – mostly Western, but the occasional Eastern Kingbirds, too. It's a little hard to get a Western Kingbird to sit still very long as we tended to keep flushing them every time we inched up slowly in the car. But they would land again to make me think they would sit still. Frustratingly, they mostly wouldn't. But as you can see, sometimes it worked out! It's also such a treat to be able to find Eastern Kingbirds in Oregon. They are such spiffy little guys. They were quite chatty and active, too.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird

There are plenty of spots to pull over. One spot was especially good for watching dragonflies dip and dance and observing pairs of damselflies fly together and even lay eggs. Another spot is just at a bend in the road where there’s a big sand bank full of nesting Northern Rough-Winged Swallows. Bank Swallows made an appearance, too.

Northern/Boreal Bluet

Two pairs of mating damselflies mostly in focus! 

Helicopter pose

Bank Swallows

Northern Rough-winged Swallows by their nest hole in a sand bank

Female California Quail

California Quail - now you see my head plume

Now you don't!

But the real purpose of the trip was still to come. Early the next morning, we got up and at ’em before sunrise to find our target species – the Great Gray Owl. We got some leads on where there have been nesting families in the past couple of years. We were on the main road at an entrance of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, driving slowly in the dim morning, before anyone else seemed to be awake in the adjacent campgrounds. Suddenly, I yelled out “OWL!” A large owl-shaped figure was perched on a branch mere feet above the car right alongside the road. Honestly thinking it could not possibly be a Great Gray, but maybe a Barred Owl or something, I had Nick back up slowly to check it out. We pulled over to park, not immediately seeing the figure I had just seen. Then, out of the stillness of the forest came gliding a majestic Great Gray Owl.

I would have been perfectly content with this distant owl

The Gray Ghost flying closer, and closer... 

He came from behind us from the other side of the road and silently flew diagonally away from us about a few hundred feet away. We watched in awe as it went from a 7-8 ft perch to the ground, seemingly playing and intermittently checking us out. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Is this real life?!?! We kept our distance and just watched it as it came closer and closer, zig-zagging every few minutes across the road to come get a better look at these silly creatures (us). It would fly to a spot where we could just see its glowing yellow eyes peaking out from the behind lichen-filled branches. Well, apparently we were all not satisfied at the looks we had of each other, so then it popped up and perched out in the open, maybe about 50 feet away. And I somehow stayed composed enough to let that shutter rip. It stared, it bobbed its head in a circular motion, it looked around. It was amazing. I looked up to get a look with my naked eyes just long enough before it flew off like the gray ghost that it is.

And voila!

Such a magnificent face

Flat-faced. Loved this view of his eyeball.

Just one more because he's so beautiful and majestic. 

This – this is what it’s all about. Moments like these, when you hope but honestly don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for, but somehow do and it’s even more spectacular than you imagined – this is what birding is all about. We weren’t even bothered by not finding any nesting owls in our search later that morning. We weren’t even too terribly upset when we got stuck in the mud and had to have some friendly ATV-wielding campers winch us out.

Lewis's Woodpecker by its likely nest hole

Lewis's Woodpecker

Chipping Sparrow

Least/Yellow-Pine Chipmunk

The rest of the day and the trip was just coasting since we found our target bird so soon. We were prepared to have to search all morning, every morning to find Great Gray Owls, but luckily we didn’t have to. We took our time looking at all of the beautiful wildflowers and butterflies in the area. We even foraged a few delicious morel mushrooms.

The Wallowa Whitman National Forest is one of my favorite spots for wildflowers

Wildflowers galore!!!

Mix of Paintbrush, Lupine, and Buttercups

A white "Cat's Ear" - must be a mutation as all the others around had the normal purple centers

Variable Checkerspot

Clark's Sphinx

Mystery moth?

Common Alpine

Common Whitetail (female)

Emerald Spreadwing

Prairie Smoke

Greenish Blue

Northern Checkerspot

We had fun hearing and seeing some Gray Catbirds in a reliable little spot at Rhinehart Canyon. We stumbled upon (and almost ran over or stepped on) a few Killdeer nests. It’s amazing how they even survive at all in the numbers that they do when they just lay their eggs on tiny, inconspicuous gravel scrapes.

Gray Catbird

Killdeer sitting on its eggs in a scrape nest on a gravel road

See the eggs?!?

Adorable Baby Killdeer (not from above eggs)

Cedar Waxwings

California Darner

This was truly a wonderful birding experience. Big weekends chock full of birding and camping are always an awesome time, but when you throw in a bucket list bird like Great Gray Owl, it is really something special.

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

Wilson's Snipe

Yellow-headed Blackbird with a mouthful of food ready to feed some hungry babies

Yellow-headed Blackbird
Yellow-headed Blackbird

One angry-sounding Red-tailed Hawk

Swainson's Hawk with some lunch

Swainson's Hawk with an unfortunate ground squirrel

Female Ring-necked Pheasant