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Sabbatical is OVER.

March 21, 2012

Wow, it’s been over a year since I’ve posted here. Good grief. I think I have some bird-things to talk about.

For starters, South America was as good on the birding front as you think it ought to be, especially for someone who spent pretty much all of 2011 there. I essentially was birding from about January 10 to December 10 of last year – certainly there were breaks in that time, but I had my bird-radar on pretty much continuously throughout.

Now, my birding philosophy last year was to emphasize quality over quantity. It’s always nice to tick lots of birds off lists, and a few of my outings sought to achieve that, to be sure. But overall, if I had a choice between seeing a few things well or just seeing lots of things fleetingly, I would choose the former. It was more important to me to feel like I was really learning something about the nature of bird-life in South America, meaning that I saw the birds within the real context of their lives and life histories, and not just as scavenger-hunt goodies. As a result of this philosophy, I ended up seeing probably fewer species than one might think in the course of a full year on the Bird Continent. It was a Big Year for me all the same, but it will definitely not go down as one of the biggest years anyone ever could have.

A digiscoped Brown Jacamar, at the Cristalino Jungle Lodge in southern Amazonia, Brazil (Oct 22, 2011)

At the moment I am still poring over lists and sorting data. It will be months before I have a final definitive tally, because processing my audio files will take that long. I know I recorded many things that I couldn’t identify, and at the moment I am still just trying to catalogue my recordings – actually analyzing and sorting them will come after that. With photos it’s kinda the same, although I’ve been focusing a lot more on that since I’ve been already giving presentations on my travels to Audubon groups here in Colorado. I’ll be talking about those in a subsequent posting.

But, just for the record, it’s looking as if I counted about 1,225 species for the year, including around 949 lifers.

Soon I’ll break the numbers down even more, but I just wanted to break the silence first and let anyone out there reading this know that I am back and am ready to talk birds again!

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Sabbatical

February 9, 2011

Don’t worry – Contact Calls is not going away. In fact, I imagine that when I return from my journey through South America, I’ll have a lot to talk about here. However, until then, most of my creative energy is being directed to my companion blog, Neotropical. I know I mentioned that in the previous post, but I wanted to make it abundantly clear to anyone dropping by here that this is not a blog that has been abandoned.

I will say this much though. My first 40 days in South America have been very rewarding and a great learning experience, even though I have only really been actively birding during about 10-12 of those days. I’ve picked up triple-digits of lifers already in just visiting Colombia, and pretty much sticking only to mid-elevation habitats. I’ve also been doing a lot of sound recording, using my new rig extensively for the first time, and doing recording in a major way for the first time since my previously-discussed sound recording workshop out in California last June. After some initial concerns about how I was going to actually use my rig on a regular basis, I seem to have arrived at a pretty usable system, where I can have my recorder and mic handy along with binos and my SLR camera. It sounds like it would be tricky to have all that dangling off me during a hike, but it’s actually not that bad. I’m certainly not speedy, but I wouldn’t be anyway.

The only concern with my system is preparedness for rain. I have to bring my daypack with me, stocked with my dry-bag, “duck back”, and my rainjacket/windbreaker. So far, a couple times I’ve been caught out in the field during some inclement weather, but fortunately have averted any damage so far. When I go to the Amazon in a couple days, I’ll have to worry about a bit more than that though – namely, humidity. The accumulative effect of high humidity on my microphone is a source of concern, and although I do have some mitigating measure ready to implement, I don’t know how that will actually work in practice.

Anyway, at least up to now recording has been wonderful, and I have enjoyed my tropical birding to a greater extent because of it. I find that capturing the sounds of the birds has added an entirely new dimension to the experience, as the obscuration of the forest doesn’t impede the ability to record like it does for photography. Photography of cloud-forest birds is quite challenging, and although I’m making progress and learning things as I go, getting recordings of singing or calling birds makes me feel a stronger connection to the places I visit. Some of the highlights so far include brief (but loud) samples of Chestnut-capped Piha, Dusky Piha, Slate-crowned Antpitta, Common Pauraque, Tropical Screech-Owl, Blackish Tapaculo, White-crowned Tapaculo, Black-crested Warbler, Whiskered Wren, a faint whistle from a Barred Fruiteater, a chorus of lekking Red-ruffed Fruitcrows, a cacophonous Cauca Guan, and some dazzling whistles and creaks from a Black-collared Jay.

But back to the topic. For the next few months, whatever bird-related topics I have will probably be posted to Neotropical instead of here, just so my parents know I’m still alive. Check there for the latest and greatest on my disposition!

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Ibagué trash birds

January 6, 2011

Just a short posting to state for the record that the birds I’ve been seeing frequently here in Ibagué, Colombia include such annoying species as Bananaquit, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Great Kiskadee, Black Vulture (which I suppose actually is a trash bird), and Blue-Gray Tanager.

What’s that, you didn’t know I was in Colombia? Read more about my just-started adventures down here at my travel blog, Neotropical.

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Getting ears in on the action

October 25, 2010

As my friend Nathan suggested on his own blog earbirding many months ago, there is no shortage of photos of birds on the internet that people photograph themselves. Photography is understandably very popular, and I am no exception either, having many hundreds if not thousands of bird photos online. But there are many fewer birders who record bird sounds, even though these sounds are usually just as distinctive, fascinating, scientifically useful, and important for documentation as any photograph. Humans are visual creatures, and this bias is reflected in the preponderance of photos over sound recordings online.

The aforementioned Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop seeks to even out that ratio, at least a little. I am the latest convert, and I’m going to write a bit today about my new recording apparatus and how I hope to use it.

My recording rig consists of just a few parts really:

  • recorder
  • microphone
  • microphone mount and windscreen
  • protective case
  • headphones

and that’s pretty much it. There are cables connecting these parts of course, and things like the memory card for the record. But the basic elements are really just the recorder and the microphone. Hell, the recorder has a built-in microphone already, so in principle I wouldn’t even need any of the other things. But, to make interesting and useful nature sound recordings it turns out that having a better mic and such helps immensely.

So, here’s what everything looks like in close-up:

The Marantz PMD661

See the quarter to the lower right to get an idea of the size of the device.

Here’s what the readout looks like:

The Marantz PMD611, when turned on

The readout is quite bright and legible, which can of course be quite helpful in the field. Using the various buttons on the top, you can navigate to many different menus and change the file-naming format, the kind of recording you are making, and many other things. (Yes, you are advised to read the manual thoroughly before using it.)

Here’s the microphone, a Sennheiser ME66 with a K6 power unit attached:

The Sennheiser ME66 shotgun microphone, with K6 power module attached

Again, a quarter is placed next to the unit to illustrate the size. It’s about 8 inches in length. The microphone is actually a pretty typical kind of microphone, but it has a long cylindrical shape that is specifically designed to give the reception directionality. You basically just point the “shotgun” in the direction of whatever it is you are trying to record, and it picks up those sounds preferentially to those occurring anywhere to the sides. (This kind of directionality is called a super-cardioid by audiophiles.)

To actually use the microphone in the field without having ridiculous wind-noise effects or without getting my sweaty paws all over it, I use a shock-mount and a windscreen:

The Rycote windscreen and shock-mount, with microphone

You can see that the mount has a shock-absorbing system to help reduce handling noise when I change the position of the microphone. This setup as a whole provides a nice easy way of handling the microphone and pointing it at birds. Of course, the original intent of these accessories was probably more for reporters at press conferences, but really, when you think about it, that’s sort of what I’m doing too. It’s just that the press conferences are all being held by birds up in trees.

Cables of course connect all these components, and to make field use effective, I will also be using a set of quality studio headphones by Sony. When it’s all put together, here’s what the setup looks like:

The full setup

The recorder is in a custom-fitted carrying-case made by Porta-Brace, made specifically for the PMD661. All told, the whole rig probably weighs no more than a pound, and it takes apart nicely and fits pretty compactly into luggage.

Will I be able to use all this and have a DSLR camera slung around my shoulder at the same time? I’m not sure – I’m guessing that I’ll probably have to make a choice when I head out in the morning what my primary focus is going to be in a session, photography or sound recording. That will dictate which equipment will be more at the ready. But it seems a shame to have to choose, when opportunities for doing both may arise within moments of each other. I’ll see what I can come up with in the next few weeks on that front to make them both viable options on any field outing.

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My New Thing

October 24, 2010

This falls under the not-exactly-timely category of postings, but I wanted to finally talk about “what I did this summer”. Way back in January, I wrote about signing up to attend the Macaulay Library Sound Recording Workshop held annually at the Sierra Nevada Foothills Campus (SNFC) northwest of Lake Tahoe in California. The workshop was held in mid-June, and I made it there.

And let me tell you, it was awesome. So awesome that I had to italicize the word “awesome”.

The workshop is run by Macaulay Library curator Greg Budney, who has held it I believe every year since 1986. He has a small staff of about 5 people from the library and elsewhere helping him run the thing, and it is a truly outstanding opportunity to learn about the art and science of nature recording. As I mentioned in my January post, I went into this not knowing thing #1 about nature recording. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, as I have spent the better part of the last 5 years listening assiduously to bird song recordings, and last year I did use my old Sony cassette recorder to take voice notes while hiking in Costa Rica. I know, that’s not much of a recording resumé, but it gives you an idea of how little experience was actually required to attend this workshop. The reality is, all you need is the enthusiasm to learn about it, and a willingness to drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours of the morning every day of the week. They take care of the rest.

If you are interested in reading a very well-written description of what goes on the workshop, I recommend reading “Birdsong” by Don Stap. The middle chapter of the book is devoted to following Greg Budney during one of his summer sessions in California, and the account is very close in its description to my own experience. Although the names of workshop participants aren’t given, I was actually able to recognize one of the people mentioned, just by his description of her background – one of the great people I met there has attended most every workshop offered in the last decade.

But back to my own experience. Again, it was phenomenal. Outstanding. Terrific. Really, it was perfect in just about every way. Just a couple days in, it really began to sink in just how perfect it was. I immediately likened it to Birder Summer Camp, if there ever was such a thing. So just how was it perfect? Let me recount the ways:

Staff. Greg Budney is a remarkable, experienced, super-smart, super-affable, organized, laid-back, and helpful workshop leader. Along with Randy Little and Bill McQuay, they were able to instruct 20 of us with our wide range of previous experience in a clear, organized fashion.

Location. The Sierran foothills in mid-June is an excellent place to learn how to record birds. We had ideal weather virtually every day, with little wind and no threat of precipitation. It made getting up early as easy as it can be, and it was nice to learn the nuts and bolts of recording (which are tricky enough) without having to deal with the elements. Of course, doing real nature recording will involve learning how handle less-than-ideal recording environments, but it was great to not have to worry about that as a beginner. In addition, the foothills provide several different recording environments that are easy to reach on subsequent mornings, so that you can get a good sampling of varying bird life and habitat on successive days, thereby expanding your recording experience very quickly. Greg and Randy now know the area inside-out, and make it easy for newbies to get a handle on what to record where.

The Field Campus. We stayed at the SNFC, about a 90-minute drive from Reno. The site is located around 6000 feet amid Jeffrey and Ponderosa Pines next to the churning Yuba River, and is enchantingly quiet at night but rife with singing birds like Evening Grosbeaks and Western Tanagers during the day. We slept in large tents situated on wood platforms, and in the tents were cots that we put our sleeping bags on. In this way, it was very simple, rustic accommodation but also quite comfortable.

The Food. Our meals were ably prepared by a staff of a great chef and several amazingly friendly summer interns. I’m really not exaggerating when I say that the food was some of the best I’ve eaten anytime, anywhere. It was so good that our workshop class made a point of it to acknowledge their cooking prowess with applause every night, and at the end of the workshop we even chipped in to a kitty to give them all one enormous, well-earned tip.

The Birds. Hermit Warbler. Mountain Quail. Pileated Woodpecker. Sandhill Cranes. Gray Flycatcher. Calliope Hummingbird. Evening Grosbeak. Sage Thrasher. Fox Sparrow. These and many more species were regular staples in our daily outings. I was very impressed with how vocal and numerous the birds were.

The Workshop Itself. I learned the proverbial “ton” about sound recording. On the first day those of us lacking our own equipment were able to borrow some from their collection of loaners, and Bill McQuay got us up to speed very quickly on how to use the rigs. The very next morning we went at it, and every day thereafter. Nothing beats actual field experience and just plain practicing on your own, and that was the main component for learning how to record. This field experience was augmented with afternoon classes and sessions focusing on the equipment itself and how it works, how to organize your recordings, listening to our work.

The Participants. You know how in any group of at least 5, 10, or 20 people there’s always bound to be one person who is a downer, or weird, or who you just can’t really talk to without getting at least a little annoyed? I do. But in this workshop, I can honestly say that I liked absolutely everyone. I have no idea how that happened, but we all got along. I don’t recall a single awkward moment, or wishing I was talking to someone else. When it was time to socialize or talk about the day’s recording, I felt like I could talk to any of the other participants. We came from very different places and backgrounds – a couple women came from Mexico, one guy from Argentina, one from Peru, one from Bhutan. We had people with lot of recording experience who are professional ornithologists, and a few people who hardly knew any birds. But we all had an interest and a need to do nature recording in some way, and if nothing else, that bound us all together very strongly.

Because my intention was to focus on sound recording, I opted not to bring my digital SLR for photography. That just would have been distracting, and inconsistent with my focus. I did bring a point-and-shoot, but even for that I was too much immersed in my daily recording efforts to do much in that regard. However, you can browse some workshop photos taken by one of the staff. In the second-to-last photo in the set you can actually see me attempting to record an American Dipper.

I won’t be able to go to the class next year, as I will be in South America virtually all year. But I will make every effort to go to the class in 2012. Hopefully by then I’ll have contributed a whole slew of new recordings to the Macaulay Library. Oh yes, I guess I should update you on the whole contributing-the-recordings thing next….

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A Time For Turkey Vultures

September 3, 2010

In the same vein as last week’s offering, I’d like to expound stream-of-consciousness-style on the topic of Turkey Vultures.

Tomorrow, September 4th, is the Tour De Fat (TDF) in Fort Collins, an increasingly popular bike parade put on by the increasingly popular New Belgium Brewery. In it virtually all the riders wear costumes or other unusual adornments, thereby making it a spectacle to behold. Now, it also happens to be International Vulture Awareness Day (IVAD), which is a very recent addition to the calendar initially created a couple years ago for the preservation of threatened Old World Vulturine birds. The stars were thus aligned, and all I needed was a reason to conjoin these two disparate occasions.

I learned of an outrage in Sterling Colorado last July, where some cowardly stain on the human race decided to shoot Turkey Vultures there on three successive days and thus have three individuals sent to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMRP) to remove the shot and undergo chelation treatment to ease the lead poisoning. Maybe I was in a vulnerable moment – I have a lot of those lately it seems – but because of my interest in conservation and humane treatment of animal life, I am put on edge when I hear stories like the above, and something in me then clicked when I learned of the congruence of IVAD and TDF. Like the cosmic pas de deux of a solar eclipse, I realized that this was an opportunity to both participate in TDF as I had always wanted, and to do so serving a higher purpose – communicating the greatness of birds and in this specific case, Turkey Vultures. TuVus lack a syrinx and therefore are unable to speak for themselves in Northern Colorado – but you can bet your ass that I’ll be there to speak up for them tomorrow, in front of thousands of people in a way no one has ever seen before. I will be dressed up as a Turkey Vulture and ride in the parade along with 3 other similarly-bedecked companions, spreading the good word about TuVus as we make sure that at least in Fort Collins, these birds will continue to have a safe place to roost and forage every year.

So what is it with me and Turkey Vultures? When I first brought up my desire to participate in the TDF at a rounds meeting several weeks ago, I think people got the impression that I was a longstanding vulture afficionado, and that like some people I know, they were really my “thing”. It’s reasonable to think that, although I wouldn’t characterize myself that way, especially now that I know several people who in my estimation are true full-on, hardcore vulture-philes.

For me, my interest and appreciation of vultures stems largely from a couple personal relationships I have with vulture individuals, namely the “Old Male” and “New Male” educational Turkey Vultures at the RMRP. I’ve been a handler for the Old Male for over 5 years now, and the New Male for 3 or 4 (I’ve lost count). Before I handled either of these birds I used to think of Turkey Vultures as rather ugly creatures, much in the same way that the people I greet in public when I am handling will often tell me outright. I’d have thus agreed with them 5 years ago, but now when I hear those words, like say, “My god what an ugly bird!” I actually react in a bit of shock and revulsion. It crosses my mind that if I didn’t have that vulture in my care at that moment, I just might pop that knucklehead, be it man or woman, right in the jaw for saying that, as if they’d addressed that sentiment to a child of mine. Of course, in actuality I show much more restraint than that and merely offer a polite verbal counter to that suggestion. But now you know what I’m really thinking when I am responding so diplomatically.

So what changed between 5 years ago and now? Maybe it was just getting to know these birds not just as representatives of their species, but as individuals with distinct personality (or  bird-onality?) traits. I can assure you that these birds are distinct from one another, and that even if their feet were obscured from view (the Old Male is missing a couple toes from an ancient bout with frostbite) I could tell them apart from a distance based on just their posture and body language. Over time I watched them closely, and noticed them noticing me in kind. I can’t say what it is they notice or remember about me from one time to the next, but the way they cooperate with me, respond to my voice and actions, and offer me those charmingly quizzical looks, suggests to me that their vulture minds are just as active and curious as my human one. I find myself simultaneously enchanted with both the things I know intellectually, abstractly about TuVus in general, and with these particular birds with their droll characters. Whatever ugliness they have has become invisible to me. The smell of their barf, well, that’s another matter, but in no way do I see anything hideous in these creatures anymore.

Turkey Vulture, in Key West, Florida, 16 December 2005.

A few taxonomic and natural history notes: Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) are members of the rather small avian family known as Cathartidae. This strictly New World family also includes the Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), commonly seen in the southeastern US and in southern Arizona, as well as the condors, the endangered California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the South American specialty Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus). There is also the King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa), a strikingly plumaged and strictly tropical species, and two other less well-known close cousins of the Turkey Vulture, the Greater and Lesser Yellow-headed Vultures (Cathartes melambrotus and Cathartes burrovianus respectively). Greater and Lesser Yellow-heads are in fact so similar to Turkey Vultures structurally that you really need to get a decent close-up view of their heads in order to tell the difference. You will only find the Yellow-heads in the tropics and subtropics however. For example, I had the pleasure of seeing a number of Greater Yellow-heads in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru back in 2005.

All the Cathartes vultures possess extraordinary olfactory powers, and experiments have shown them capable of locating hidden carrion from miles away. The other vultures are not thought to have as much ability in this department, and instead probably rely more on visual location or just looking for where the Turkey and Yellow-headed Vultures are going to find food.

On a naming note, local naturalist Kevin Cook has said the Cathartids should commonly be referred to collectively just as “condors,” to distinguish them from the Old World Vultures. Confusingly, the birds we call “vultures” here in the states include both the Cathartids and the Old World Vultures, with the latter being closely related to hawks and eagles and are thus Accipitrids. In the Old World, Accipitrids are sometimes referred to in the common vernacular as “buzzards”, which here in the US is a term applied to, yes, vultures. Clear as mud, yes?

But anyway, back to Turkey Vultures and Tour De Fat. I hope to have some photos to post in the coming days of my costume and participation in what I’ve christened Tour De Vulture. I don’t know if this will be an annual phenomenon, although I hope it will. During my travels next year, I hope to photograph all the aforementioned Cathartids, and help further the enlightenment of the world about these essential and fascinating birds.

The Old Male Turkey Vulture and me at a recent exhibit in Fort Collins

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Swainson’s Hawks – A Meditation

August 25, 2010

[Note: this is a slightly-modified version of a posting I made originally to the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program listserv]

If you attended rounds last night or just read Joelle’s Rounds Notes, you know that this promises to be a great day, as 16 Swainson’s Hawks, many of which have spent an entire year or more in our care, will be released to take part in one of the great natural spectacles that our world has to offer. I will be tagging along for the release today, helping where I can of course, but also there to catch a glimpse of the birds which will depart in the next month for the pampas region of northern Argentina, a one-way trip of nearly 5,000 miles. Along with migrating Broad-winged Hawks, Mississippi Kites, and Turkey Vultures, they fly over places like Veracruz, Mexico on their way south in astonishing numbers – the so-called “River of Raptors” in Veracruz in the fall regularly documents as many as 50 THOUSAND Swainson’s Hawks flying through a *day* during fall migration. The total number of raptors passing overhead there in a season is over 3 million.

Now, if you’ve been with the program for any length of time, and helped with any of the programs or exhibits or just overheard the handlers talk about our educational birds, you’ve likely heard the stories about the Swainson’s Hawks and their epic migration. You may already know these birds spend their summers in North America, largely in the American West ranging from northern Mexico up into southern Canada, from as far east as the high plains to as far west as the Central Valley of California. Starting around now they begin to assemble into larger and larger groups, as recently-fledged young disperse from their nesting locations. The young however need to find these groups, because they don’t know the way to go. Apparently past experience with rehabilitating first-year Swainson’s Hawks has shown this to be the case. It’s quite a testament I think to how some birds, even those who we tend to think are not very intelligent or socialized, actually DO use their brains, cooperate at least in some way, and have the ability to be very receptive to new knowledge.

As a handler I’ve often heard other handlers refer to the juvenile Swainson’s Hawks as “young and dumb”, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that, having seen how they behave in their flight cages. But think about it — after these birds have completed an annual migration cycle, where they’ve paid attention to landmarks along the way, and having been guided by seasoned adults, they are then in subsequent years able to do the trip themselves, and even lead the way for the next generation. That’s called LEARNING. That means they have good memories, that they were paying attention to where they were, to whatever other sky phenomena they may use to guide themselves on this remarkable journey through vast desert, urban, rainforest, and savanna biomes. How is that any different from how WE are? Who among us is so inherently brilliant to have mastered so many life skills without the guidance of at least someone at some point? Well, maybe a couple of us, I don’t know, but certainly not me. For my part, I can say that in this specific way, I identify with the Swainson’s Hawk. Inasmuch as the birds we are about to release today are going to embark on the epic journey that will define the rest of their lives, I salute them and admire them for what they are about to do, and for the symbol of freedom, exploration, and determination for survival that it represents. What better demonstration of the capacity for growth and change and self-improvement is there, than to answer the call of one’s inner nomad like this?

———————

This weekend I helped out at New West Fest, and on Saturday we had the female Swainson’s Hawk on display at the booth. At one point, I was relating the great Swainson’s migration to a booth visitor, describing the migration route they take. I told him that they assemble in North America, fly together in enormous kettles through Central America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.) and then reach the Darien Gap which connects Panama to Colombia and the rest of South America. I then said that after that we don’t really know where they go next, just that after another couple weeks they are in northern Argentina.

But I was mistaken. We now actually DO have a pretty good idea about where they go. Take a look at this map:

Swainson's hawk migration route. Data from USGS, Snake River Field Station, from 30 birds fitted with satellite tracking devices.

This is a map compiled recently from a study involving the fitting of satellite tracking devices onto migrating hawks. What is astounding to me is how, once they arrive in South America, these birds take as direct a route to their wintering grounds as possible. They’re not spreading out over the vastness of the Amazon, lost or confused or distracted – no, they know exactly where they need to go, and they’re not messing around. And don’t be misled by that little bend they take in their path around central Bolivia – that is a strategically smart detour they take, because that allows them to not waste energy flying over the unforested high Andes and the resource-sparse altiplano. It’s brilliant really, but it’s only in the past few years that we now have the scientific data to demonstrate just what these birds do on their southbound trip.

———————

Back to the booth this weekend. I got to give my own Swainson’s spiel of course, but also listen to other handlers’ spiels, which was very interesting to me. In general, and this applies for any booth experience, people are initially confused by the mere name “Swainson’s Hawk”, as most laypersons have never heard that name before. Handlers tend to then explain, myself included, that the bird was named after someone named Swainson, which seems true enough, but then also add in, only half-jokingly perhaps as a way to bond or connect with the person we’re talking to, that Swainson must have had a big ego to name a bird after himself. After hearing that apocryphal explanation several times that afternoon, I got to wondering, what’s the real story there? Did Swainson really name a bird after himself? So, that night after I got home I did a little research…..

There was indeed in the early 1800s a British man named William Swainson. He was one of many amateur naturalists in that era who essentially were professionals, once they had a regular source of income that could pay for the time it took to collect specimens and participate in nature societies like the Linnean Society, of which Swainson was a part. In his case, he “retired” young on a military pension, and spent the rest of his life indulging his real passion, which apparently was studying animals and making illustrations. He became quite accomplished at making lithographs. He was one of the first if not *the* first person to make pictures like this, and I encourage you to do a Google image search on “Swainson’s lithographs” to get an idea of the kinds of illustrations he made. John J Audubon was an admirer of his, for good reason. Swainson worked with another naturalist named John Richardson and in the late 1820s they produced a volume called Fauna Boreali-Americana, which featured hundreds of Swainson’s excellent depictions of birds observed and collected by Richardson in North America. From what I can tell, Swainson himself never visited North America, although he did spend a fair amount of time in Brazil.

Anyway, one of the birds depicted in the book was indeed what we now call a Swainson’s Hawk, but of course it wasn’t identified as such in it. Richardson had described the bird as a form of Buteo vulgaris, which is now called Buteo buteo, basically the Common Buzzard of Eurasia. (The Common Buzzard is a close relative of all buteonine hawks, which if you aren’t aware, includes Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Ferruginous Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and many others.) A different naturalist some years later, Charles Bonaparte, noticed this and corrected this error. He knew that the bird in Swainson’s illustration was a different species, and it was he, NOT William Swainson, who was the first to give a scientifically correct description of it. However, he too was an admirer of Swainson’s work, and in tribute to his great lithographs, he named the bird after Swainson, Buteo swainsoni. And THAT is how the Swainson’s Hawk got its name.

In this manner, Swainson had other types of birds named after him too, including the Swainson’s Thrush, Swainson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Flycatcher, and Swainson’s Toucan (now usually referred to as the Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, although the scientific name still bears the swainsoni tag). From what I can tell, in that era of discovery and exploration in the 1800s it was actually quite rare for a naturalist to name a bird after himself – instead, he usually named it after someone else who he admired, or otherwise though deserved mention in some way. That’s still generally true I think.

That all said, I did also learn though that it’s not unfair to posit that Swainson probably did have a big ego. In an unrelated matter, Swainson later in his life moved to New Zealand, and a few years after that was offered a position as a “Botanical Surveyor” in Australia, based largely on his sterling reputation as a naturalist and illustrator. However, Swainson had little or no real experience with plants, and other more knowledgeable and experienced botanists of his day were more than a little annoyed at his simplistic and casual approach to describing new plants in Australia, where he took it upon himself to name hundreds or even thousands of species of plants, many of which weren’t really separate species in the first place.

In my book, that takes some cojones and an ego, to go into a field that you know you’re not an expert in and just go all willy-nilly on a naming spree, just because you can.

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