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Monday
Jan072019

Book Review: The Family of Hummingbirds

Here, reproduced entirely, in The Family of Hummingbirds by Joel and Laura Oppenheimer, are the 418 magnificently detailed hand-colored lithographs of hummingbirds by John Gould (1804-81), the “British Audubon.”

White-throated Mountain GemIn the opening essay, co-author Laura Oppenheimer tells the story of Gould’s nearly predestined career, beginning as an apprentice to his father, horticulturist at Windsor Castle. While cultivating diligent and observant gardening skills, he found a secondary interest in ornithology and taxidermy, largely self-taught. In London, he set up shop as a successful taxidermist in a Victorian Age obsessed with the strange wonders of the natural world sent back to England by intrepid explorers. Elizabeth Coxen, formally trained in drawing and painting, became his wife (she later executed many of his prints). His knowledge was recognized by his appoint as superintendent of the ornithological department of the Zoological Society Museum, which provide him with a network of learned, wealthy gentlemen naturalists.

These successive life events nicely telescoped into his magnum opus, The Family of Hummingbirds. Gould had been entranced by the hummingbirds collected in the New World, where their habitats extend from Alaska to the tip of South America. Their skins, preserved in arsenical soap, were transported back to Britain. Gould mounted over 5,000 hummingbirds. With entrepreneurial business and organizational skills, he assembled a staff of talented artists and printers, and published, over 13 years (1848-61) the 418 plates. Gould tactfully promoted sales of his lavish production by combining it with a public display of 1,500 taxidermied bird specimens at the Zoological Gardens in Regent’s Park. 75,000 attended, including Queen Victoria. Eager subscribers were astounded by these ‘living gems’ as he called them.

Gould’s complementary use of two innovations – lithography and gold leaf under hand-coloring – make this work outstanding. Prior to his time, the laborious process of engraving and etching on copper plants had often been used for printing natural subjects. Gould brought a more advanced method of lithography to maturity and a greater expressive potential in his bird prints. Here, the initial drawn image is transferred to a limestone slab with a greasy lithographic crayon. (Joel Oppenheimer, in the introduction, compares the techniques of etching and lithography in detail.) The beauty of lithography was that it enables the original artists to participate more directly in the process, resulting in a more faithful final image. The process was also more economical, producing more affordable prints.

Gould himself, initially sketched an overall design, with a male and female of each species, in a composition with a plant native to its habitat. An artist would further develop it to completion with only a few subtle adjustments suggested by Gould. The finished drawing was transferred to the lithographic stone. e resulting black and white toned print then required a final state of hand-coloring Here, Gould’s achievement was to illuminate the reflective iridescence of these ‘living gems’ with use of ‘transparent oil and varnish colors over pure gold leaf.’ And that is all we know of the formulas and techniques he labored over, for many years, to perfect. No notes have been found, and he obtained no patents.

The plates are indeed, awe-striking. The exquisite jewel-like patterns of the birds’ feathers stand out against muted background botanicals. About a dozen of the hummingbirds are further shown in enlarged images. But, unfortunately, in order to accommodate all 418 plates, it was often necessary to squeeze nine on one page, such that each is barely the size of a playing card and thus difficult to decipher and appreciate.

I was particularly taken by the design and composition of each plate. The birds do no merely perch on a branch, but seem comfortably at ease in their surroundings. Their poses are so animated that they appear like a balletic pas de deux pirouetting and jete-ing as they sweep across the page. How could Gould have such imaginative insight of their acrobatic activities when he dealt with dead specimens and did not see a live hummingbird until a trip to Philadelphia in 1854?

Each plate, actually, usually has three birds. Since the third has a slight size and color variation, I assume it is a juvenile.

Acquainted only with our common ruby-throated hummingbird, I was surprised to learn of their marked heterogeneity. Yes, I knew their long, pointed bills had supposedly co-evolved to extract nectar from deep inside trumpet-shaped flowers, but there are also ‘saw, sword, and tooth’ -billed hummingbirds. Tails may be ‘racket’ or ‘scissor’ -shaped. ‘Comet, sylph, sunbeam and sungem’ are just a few of the species names, attesting to their brilliant plumage.

If the birds were not present on the plates, this tome would nonetheless be a virtual encyclopedia of tropical foliage. Though, as noted, in somewhat lighter, cooler colors, the botanicals are beautifully rendered, many derived from Walter Fitch, chief illustrator for the era’s preeminent Curtis Botanical Magazine. Regretfully, none of the plants are labelled.

The Family of Hummingbirds will captivate birdwatchers, fans of natural history art and hummingbird lovers everywhere.

$65.00

www.rizzoliusa.com

Thursday
Jan032019

Christmas Bird Count Results

Another Christmas Bird Count is in the books, Rutland County Audubon’s 45th and National Audubon’s 119th.

A total of 48 birders, consisting of eight field teams and 12 feeder watchers, tallied 46 species. Two additional species, great blue heron and peregrine falcon, were sighted during Count Week (the three days before count day and three days following when species not seen on count day may be included in the tally).

The day started in the low 40s and was mostly cloudy, and ended in the low 30s, with some light rain and snow, but virtually no snow cover. Whether this is what affected the lower number of birds is hard to tell. Although this is time of year when the lowest number of species is expected, most of the field teams and feeder watchers noted exceptionally low activity.

Our average count for the past 10 years is 51 species with a high count of 58 in 2011 and a low count of 43 in 2009.

Bohemian WaxwingsWe had several new participants this year with two coming from as far away as Georgia. Two teams had seven participants and two teams achieved 35 species for their areas. And more territory was covered on foot this year. There were a few new feeder watchers and they did an excellent job, including one who had the dubious privilege of counting the American crows as they came in to their evening roost.

But there were highlights despite low species numbers!

Several bird species have irrupted from the north this season. An irruption is defined as a “dramatic, irregular migration of large numbers of birds,” usually in response to food supply. Two of these species were observed on the count: pine grosbeak seen by three field teams and Bohemian waxwings by two teams. Hopefully we will see more of them as the winter progresses. Ornamental crabapples are the place to look for these.

Two other irruptive species being seen in Vermont this season were not recorded on our count – common redpolls and evening grosbeaks. The pine siskins seen this fall seem to have moved on.

Two new species had a record high of individuals for the count: eastern bluebirds, with 51 observed, and 14 red-bellied woodpeckers, a species that has been increasing rapidly in the state over the past 15 years or so.

There were some unusual species that were not new, but are never guaranteed. Two Wilson’s snipe were spotted along Otter Creek by the same team that also saw a winter wren.

MerlinOverall raptor numbers were low, 22 red-tailed hawks were spotted, about half our high which occurred in 2017. Three sharp-shinned hawks and five Cooper’s hawks were seen, contrasting with a high of nine in 1995 and eight in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Only one barred owl was noted. Two of the ever-increasing bald eagles were seen. A photo of one raptor, originally thought to be a kestrel seen in poor light, turned out to be a merlin. No other raptors, other than these and the count week peregrine falcon, were observed.

Some misses included no belted kingfishers, despite all the open water; no-snow no-show snow buntings; and no golden-crowned kinglets.

On a non-avian note, a green frog was seen at Rocky Pond at Pine Hill Park in Rutland and reported to the Vermont Reptile and Amphibian Atlas.

Of course, the highlight of the count is the potluck supper where we countdown the day’s results and enjoy everyone’s best potluck contribution. We had a high number of birders attend the supper – 35! Although bird numbers were down, spirits were high!

Thanks to Kathleen Guinness for organizing a successful count! It’s a lot of work, but it comes together year after year.

 

 

 

Species List:

Canada Goose                                     
Mallard                                    
American Black Duck              
Common Merganser                
Ruffed Grouse                                             
Wild Turkey                             
Rock Pigeon                           
Mourning Dove                       
Wilson's Snipe                        
Great Blue Heron                   
Sharp-shinned Hawk               
Cooper's Hawk                         
Bald Eagle                                
Red-tailed Hawk                       
Barred Owl                                
Red-bellied Woodpecker           
Downy Woodpecker                   
Hairy Woodpecker                      
Pileated Woodpecker                
Northern Flicker                                
Merlin                                         
Peregrine Falcon                    
Northern Shrike                       
Blue Jay                                   
American Crow                    
Common Raven                       
Black-capped Chickadee           
Tufted Titmouse                        
Red-breasted Nuthatch            
White-breasted Nuthatch          
Brown Creeper                           
Winter Wren                                
Carolina Wren                            
Eastern Bluebird                        
American Robin                          
European Starling                       
Bohemian Waxwing                    
Cedar Waxwing                          
Pine Grosbeak                            
House Finch                                
American Goldfinch                    
American Tree Sparrow              
Dark-eyed Junco                        
White-throated Sparrow              
Song Sparrow                             
Red-winged Blackbird                 
Northern Cardinal                        
House Sparrow                            

 

 

Wednesday
Dec262018

West Rutland Marsh - December 2018

by Kathleen Guinness

Monitoring the West Rutland Marsh for birds in December can be a tricky thing; it can be bone-chillingly cold or the weather can be as warm as it is in early spring. Today, the eleven of us from RCAS who set aside our Christmas busy-ness and who set out were given the gift of a spring–like day, with a sun peeking out at us to start and becoming more bright with every step we took and temperatures rising into the 40s. It made all of us feel optimistic and maybe even a little giddy, after the cold spell we’d had just two days earlier.

But, better than the weather, even, were the exciting birds we spotted along the 3.7 mile walk. There were the usual suspects at the feeders at the kiosk: sparrows, cardinals, downy woodpeckers, and chickadees. Further up, there were titmice and nuthatches and a spectacularly harsh sounding raven. It was after we rounded the bend that we got our second gift of the day - a northern shrike, appearing at the top of a distant deciduous tree and looking like a cotton bud or a catkin to an inexperienced birder. This sighting made us jump for joy, as it is so infrequently seen. Everyone had a happy face as we headed onto Whipple Hollow Road and spied our first junco of the day.

On Whipple Hollow Road, a group of eight turkeys surprised us, too. And, then....someone spotted a big-eyed, flying squirrel poking its sweet head out of a birdhouse made by Marv Elliott. Several good pictures were taken of that special creature, even though it was not a bird (Audubon treasures all of wildlife). It was our third gift.

No, there was not a Partridge in a Pear Tree, but there were seventeen, lovely species, with the high count being friendly, chirping chickadees, on a beautiful day in mid-December. With these gifts, who could want a hippopotamus for Christmas?!

 

The List:
Wild Turkey  8
Mourning Dove  10
Downy Woodpecker  6
Hairy Woodpecker  5
Pileated Woodpecker  1
Northern Shrike  1
Blue Jay  4
American Crow  3
Common Raven  1
Black-capped Chickadee  26
Tufted Titmouse  9
White-breasted Nuthatch  3
European Starling  5
American Goldfinch  6
American Tree Sparrow  5
Dark-eyed Junco  1
Northern Cardinal  3

 

 

Monday
Dec032018

Christmas Bird Count

What better way to celebrate the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 than by participating in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC)? This year marks the 119th annual count for National Audubon and the 45th for Rutland County. The Rutland count will be held on Saturday, December 29.

What is the Christmas Bird Count? Many years ago, it was the custom to go out during the Christmas season and shoot birds for sport. In 1900, as people began to realize that bird populations were in decline (and some species going extinct), ornithologist Frank Chapman decided it would be better to COUNT birds instead of shooting them. The idea began to spread and today there are over 2,500 counts throughout the U.S., Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Pacific Islands.

The Rutland Christmas Count area is a circle centered at the falls in Center Rutland and encompasses a 15-mile diameter around that. That includes all of Rutland City, Rutland Town, portions of Proctor, West Rutland, Ira, Pittsford and Clarendon. Participants go out to cover assigned portions of the circle, counting as many birds as possible, as well as noting weather conditions and mileage covered. Others count from home.

The Christmas Bird Count is fun! And it’s a great way to get out in the fresh air and enjoy nature after the excesses of the holidays. You join other bird enthusiasts to take on the challenge of identifying and counting as many species and individual birds as possible. If you don’t feel your skills are up to par, don’t worry, we’ll pair you with a team. It can be an opportunity to meet new friends and learn more about birds and citizen science, the real point of the CBC.  

Citizen science, the idea that non-professional people can contribute to a body of data, important to furthering scientific study, is what the Christmas Bird Count is all about. With over a century of data, the CBC is one of the oldest citizen science projects. Data has been used by researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

So now you know why you should participate here is how:

Join a field team! We have eight teams, seven that cover a portion of the circle and travel by car, getting out at promising spots. One team walks along Otter Creek and is definitely for the hardier among us. Contact Kathleen Guinness at birding@rutlandcountyaudubon.org to join the count.

Not a fan of going out in the cold weather? Feeder watchers within the count circle are also needed. If you aren’t sure if you live within the circle, contact us at birding@rutlandcountyaudubon.org and we can help you figure it out.

The day ends at the Proctor Library with a potluck supper and a countdown of the species seen. Attendance at the supper isn’t mandatory (we know this is a busy time of year), but it’s a lot of fun and the food is always abundant and good. The supper starts at 6 p.m. with beverages and utensils to share. Just bring your favorite dish to share!

Thursday
Nov152018

West Rutland Marsh - November 2018

Temperatures under 20 degrees and impending snow reminded the seven participants at today’s West Rutland Marsh walk that winter is looming. Despite the cold we tallied 22 species, one less than a year ago, and three more than our average for November.

Two common redpolls were spotted near the boardwalk by one early birder. This is a species expected to be seen in the northeast this year.

Further down Marble Street one sharp-eared birder picked up the sound of Bohemian waxwings, another winter irruptive reported this past week throughout the state. We then found 12 of them on top of a tree. If you are interested in what else might be seen this winter, click here for the annual finch forecast (which includes other species).

Also, along Marble Street, we alarmed a great blue heron lurking in the reeds and watched it as it circled a field and took off.

Two winter wrens were heard along Whipple Hollow Road, each in different locations.

Several American robins were recorded as well as a lone red-winged blackbird.

No pine grosbeaks or pine siskins were seen, but maybe we will see them on next month’s walk scheduled for Saturday, December 15, at 8 a.m. We all love our furry friends, but in order to lessen disturbance to our feathered friends, please leave pets at home.

Today's list:
Canada Goose  38
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon)  6
Mourning Dove  8
Great Blue Heron  1
Downy Woodpecker  4
Blue Jay  12
American Crow  6
Common Raven  2
Black-capped Chickadee  26
Tufted Titmouse  4
White-breasted Nuthatch  4
Winter Wren  2
American Robin  8
European Starling  18
Bohemian Waxwing  12
House Finch  4
American Goldfinch  3
Dark-eyed Junco  3
Red-winged Blackbird  1
Northern Cardinal  2
Common Redpoll  2
House Sparrow  1