I thought of detouring to Niagara Falls but that would have been silly – it would have added too many miles and I have seen torrents of rain all day anyway. When it hasn’t been raining hard it has been raining very hard.
So not a bird-rich day – even though the Allegheny Mountains, through which I have meandered, look good for a warbler or two – but not in this weather.
I have two Field Guides with me and I have been comparing them – if you can’t bird then bird-book!
They are the ‘old’ Peterson ‘Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies’ and the ‘new’ Sibley ‘Guide to the Birds’. There are other guides available.
My Peterson must have been bought in about 1981 when I came to Canada for a few weeks to study bats. I see it cost me 7.50 (pounds – can’t find the pound sign on this US keyboard) and it is still a very good guide. I’m sentimentally attached to it but it also has the big advantage of being pocket-sized, partly because it covers fewer species than Sibley and covers them in less detail.
But Sibley is fantastic – in the depth and detail of its coverage. It shows every US and Canadian species in flight and all plumages but that makes it, for me, more a ‘leave it in the car guide’ than a ‘field guide’. It’s a tome.
It’s good to have both.
Peterson has some quirkiness and some wisdom.
He includes in the 1980 edition, which was completely updated from the 1934 first edition, illustrations of the Passenger Pigeon (which went extinct in the wild before Martha fell off her perch in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914) and the Carolina Parakeet (which fell off its perch (an interesting story here which I promise to come back to some time) in 1918). Peterson didn’t include the Heath Hen which survived on Martha’s Vineyard until 1932 – probably because he regarded it as a race of Greater Prairie Chicken (or maybe he just didn’t like it for some reason). Peterson included two more species as ‘nearly extinct’ – Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Eskimo Curlew – and most would agree with his prediction – although there is a story to be told there too. And Peterson also includes Bachman’s Warbler though noting it as the ‘rarest North American songbird’. Sibley doesn’t include any of these species – he’s a hard man it seems, he’s written them all off for ever, or maybe his publisher was tough on the number of pages.
Bachman’s Warbler was the last one to go – with the last one being seen in the USA in 1988 (and before that in 1961) at the I’On Swamp just North of Charleston and near where there was all that sex and laughing going on last week. There is a possible sighting from the wintering grounds in Cuba but it may well be that this species is extinct too – but if it isn’t, hang on to your Petersons because Sibley is no help here.
And yes, I did visit the I’On Swamp last week, not to look for Bachman’s Warbler but to look at the swamp – it’s a swamp for sure. The habitat looked quite similar to lots of other local habitats and the species was formerly widespread but it was interesting to have a look.
So there have been a few birds which have gone extinct, or probably have, in the last century. And mostly they disappeared in the period between the American Civil War and the First World War at a time of massive growth in the US economy and population, and when the West was ‘won’. We’ll come back to this too.
But Peterson also has a note at the front of his book which reads as follows: ‘Birds undeniably contribute to our pleasure and standard of living. But they also are sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of ‘ecological litmus paper,’ and hence more meaningful than just chickadees and cardinals to brighten the suburban garden, grouse and ducks to fill the sportsman’s bag, or rare warblers or shorebirds to be ticked off on the birder’s checklist. The observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.’.
Brilliantly put and still true. And maybe that ‘ecological litmus paper’ is why Peterson included those extinct and near-extinct species. Maybe he thought we ought to be reminded of changing baselines and of what we have lost. Maybe he thought we should not close the page on these species; we should turn the page and be reminded of them. And maybe, if he did think these things, he was right.
Today’s soundtrack was Don McLean’s Greatest Hits and, I have succumbed at last, Bob Dylan (The Essential Bob Dylan – not by any means his best, but one I have listened to less than many others).