Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Poignant records of lost animals

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird books, Bird conservation Updated: March 17, 2014 - 4:39 PM

“Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record,” Errol Fuller, Princeton University Press, 2013, hardcover, 255 pages, illustrated, $29.95.

The animals going extinct today are so much more fortunate than the animals that went extinct, say, 100 years ago.

They are apt to be better remembered.

Today we can capture in photographs memories of what we are losing. We can easily keep the lost ones on record, in mind. We are so able to document our folly.

That was not the case until fairly recently. Equipment was a factor, probably the factor. No one was able to photograph the sky-darkening flocks of Passenger Pigeons, the flocks that, we are told, took  days and nights to pass a single place.

We can’t form a true mental image from the words, “We are told.” We need the experience or the photo of the blackened sky to help us comprehend the loss.

There are photos of Passenger Pigeons. You’ve perhaps seen the sad, poignant photos of Martha, the last of her species as she waited in the Cincinnati zoo to put a period on her story. 

Author Errol Fuller gives us a book filled with poignant images in “Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record.” He has collected photo images of 28 animals gone extinct. There are many more extinctions, of course, but few photo records of what is gone. 

Some of the photos are quite good, others dark and blurry. Particularly good are the black-and-white photos taken by James T. Tanner of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers encountered in the 1930s as he studied these birds in Louisiana. There are several images of a young bird, looking almost playful, obviously unaware of its future.

Most of the animals discussed in the book are birds. For all of the animals Fuller provides interesting, brief accounts of how and why these animals went extinct, who had photos, and how he found them. He offers important footnotes to extinction history. The answer to the question why, incidentally, turns out to be habitat loss more often than not. Apparently, we haven’t learned much from our history.

I found the emotional content of these photos surprising. There is a difference between reading of an extinct animal and seeing them here. Fuller shows us what we’ve lost.

Because some of the photos are of marginal quality, Fuller has included in an appendix artists’ illustrations of these 28 animals. They are lovely, colored paintings and drawings. They are not nearly as powerful as the sometimes crude photos he offers us.

(Note on Ivory-billed Woodpecker: Some people say there are more recent photos of that bird, albeit blurred, distant images best viewed with imagination. Fuller believes this species to be dead and gone, any photos in absolute need of imagination. He mocks people who say they have seen the bird as recently as 2002. Some of us believe — hope — he sooner or later will be proven wrong. The hunt does continue.)

An excellent book on North America's rare birds

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird identification, Bird migration, Bird sightings Updated: February 28, 2014 - 4:54 PM

Rare Birds of North America, Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, Will Russell, Princeton University Press, 2014, hardcover, 428 pages, heavily illustrated, with index, $35.

All bird identification books should be this good. 

The two authors and the artist, Lewington, have created a guide to 262 species of birds rarely seen in North America. Their criteria for species is five or fewer North American sightings per year, using records dating to 1950.

The book is lavishy illustrated; Lewington is a fine artist. The text is lavish, too, far more information offered than is found in the usual field guide.

This, of course, is not a usual field guide. Working with 262 species, about one-third the number found in your Peterson or Sibley guides, is a real advantage for the authors, thus a real plus for readers.

Each species is discussed first in a brief summary of where it has been seen. Comment on taxonomy follows, then extensive discussion of status and distribution, comments on sightings, very complete field identification comments, including differing plumages by age, sex, and season, and comments on similar species. Similar species often are illustrated; side-by-side comparisons can be  made. 

If you seek rare birds or just hope to encounter one on your travels, the authors give you a thorough review and explanation of vagrancy and migration patterns. With many maps and clear text, you can actually plot — well, make a reasonable guess — as to where and when you want to be to see whatever. 

There are no other books I know of that offer such extensive analysis.

The book is an enjoyable and educational read for anyone interested in how and why rare birds sometimes show up in odd places, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. 

There was a Fieldfare, a northern European thrush, in Grand Marais in 1991, for example, way off its usual paths. A tropical hummingbird called Green Violet-ear spent a few days in LaCrosse in 1998. Another tropical hummer, a Green-breasted Mango, was in eastern Wisconsin in 2007. 

Minnesota had a Garganey, a European duck, in 1993. It breeds across northern Eurasia. A Smew was seen in Superior, Wisconsin, in 2000. It’s a boreal breeder from Scandinavia east across Russia. Minnesota has seen more than one Fork-tailed Flycatcher, a resident of South America.

The book helps you understand why this happens and, perhaps, when. The latter makes this a beautifully done wish-list.

There's a new birding movie

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird identification Updated: March 13, 2014 - 4:50 PM

A new birding movie, a coming-of-age story that centers on possible discovery of a bird extinct for over a hundred years, opens March 21 in "selected cities." The title is "A Birder's Guide to Everything." Four teen birders chase the rarest-of-rare possibility, the hero meets a girl, and it all ends well, except the bird is ... well, I don't want to spoil the ending. You can see a preview at www.tribecafilm.com. It looks good, and is said bv a reviewer not to contain the cliched satire that dominated the last birding movie made (The Big Year). Whether or not it will play here is the question.

Feed the birds

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird feeding Updated: February 26, 2014 - 11:16 AM

Birds might be better equipped than we are to survive this cold weather, but feeder food will help. Keep your feeders full. Offer suet; it's energy food. Water also is important. You can buy watering trays that contain heating coils. Below, two Downy Woodpeckers debating dibs on a suet feeder.

Red-throated Loon rehabbing in Roseville

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird feeding, Bird migration, Bird sightings Updated: March 3, 2014 - 10:44 AM

A Red-throated Loon, most unusual bird for Minnesota in winter, is being cared for at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville. The grounded bird was brought to the center undernourished and with damaged primary feathers.

These birds often winter on the Great Lakes. This year's extensive ice cover has forced birds to seek open water elsewhere. The loon arrived here, disappointed no doubt with our lack of open water. It needed help because its legs are made for swimming, not walking. With legs set far back on its body, as you can see in a rehab center video, loons are almost helpless on land. They must run on water to attain speed needed for liftoff, a run impossible for them on land.

The bird has its own pool at the rehab center, and is eating minnows. If anyone is yet ice fishing, small sunfish would be accepted as food for the bird. Take a look at the wonderful video of this lively bird at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQV31p05UWE&feature=youtu.be

The Red-throated Loons, below, are the smallest of the five loon species. It nests in the Arctic. It is seen in Minnesota during migration, most often in the fall.

You can follow the loon's progress on the rehab center's Facebook page.




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