Sunday, July 17, 2011

Birds of the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona

Birds of the Huachuca Mountains, Arizona
Pacific Coast Avifauna No. 4
by  Swarth, Harry S.
1904, 70pp, ISBN: Unknown

Basics:  softcover; annotated list of 188 species found in the Huachuca Mountains between 1896 and 1903; each bird receives a paragraph discussing status, abundance, seasonality, habitat preferences, and other brief notes on its natural history; birds unique to the area have up to a full page or more of text; an interesting look into ornithological history with old names for the birds and changes in status over time

Okay, this review may be a century late, but the intent is not to hype up sales of this uncommon work, but to draw attention to its historical and scientific value.  In fact, this review would not be possible without the considerable amount of time that has elapsed.  And, this review is to offer a brief before-and-after glimpse of a very popular birding destination in Arizona and to see a few changes in the culture of birding.  To be fair to the reader, this review has morphed into more of a commentary, if not a nostalgic editorial.
Perhaps the most poignant snippet of this book is a single sentence found in its introduction.  When reading the author's matter-of-fact comment, keep in mind your own adventures when you took a leisurely weekend drive to do a bit of birding.  The author's line reads, "In 1896 four of us…made the Huachuca mountains the objective point of a leisurely wagon trip from Los Angeles across the Colorado desert and southern Arizona, and spent three months, from April 25th to July 20th, camped in Ramsey Canyon."

A wagon trip!  A leisurely one, at that, across the desert.  The trip was then followed by a 3-month camping stint in Arizona's desert summer.  Of course, after finishing their bit of birding, there was the leisurely wagon ride back home.  That was one of three trips made by Mr. Swarth and company and was approximately a 550 mile venture -- one way.

Another noteworthy cultural difference generated by a century of change shows up in the brief account of the American Dipper.  Referring to the only sighting of this bird in the Huachucas, Swarth writes, "Several times in the month of August I saw what was probably the same bird, in this place (Ramsey Canyon); but it was so wild as to be unapproachable, and though it never flew to any great distance I was quite unable to get a shot at it."
The passing of a century creates a very different perspective.  While out birding, how many of us have stopped to say, "Wow, this is the only dipper ever known to be seen here.  Let's shoot it."?  Perhaps it's easy today for us to cringe a bit when we hear that, but we do so from the comfort of our 12x50 ultra-bright binoculars and our 1000mm telescopic camera lens.  As most of us probably know, those earlier times of collection were the foundation of our birding knowledge today.  Collection was done with a (mostly) beneficial, academic purpose.  It was how they saw and identified a bird, how they built and preserved the knowledge, and how we've come to enjoy the field guides and websites we so easily peruse in search of that one plumage amongst all those illustrated.

Another intriguing aspect about this window back in birding-time is examining what birds were present in Swarth's era but not today; or, vice versa.  Regarding the Aplomado Falcon, Swarth posed a very familiar question, "Where has the bird gone?"  Referring to his predecessor's account (Charles Bendire) of the bird, the falcon was "Although evidently of quite common occurrence in this region…in 1887, since then they seem to have left the country altogether."  Swarth concludes with a pondering thought I've heard rehashed by today's ornithologists, "What could have caused them to shift their location so absolutely it is hard to surmise."  It is interesting to note that less than 20 years had passed between Bendire's status of "quite common" in 1887 to being absent by 1904.
In a similar outcome, Swarth recounts about the Burrowing Owl stating they "are to be seen in considerable numbers in the various prairie dog towns between the Huachucas and the San Pedro River."  Sadly, neither the owls nor the prairie dogs are to be found in this region in 2010 - if not uncommonly for the owl.

Another interesting change involves the Baird's Sparrow.  Birders of southern Arizona recognize that to search for this bird means relying on luck to some extent while walking through specific grassy fields in the winter.  Multiple visits are often necessary for a satisfying view.  For Swarth, he noted, "This species proved to be exceedingly abundant in the spring on all parts of the plain below the Huachucas; even coming up into the mouths of the canyons in places where the ground was a open and free from trees."

On the flip side, other birds we've come to expect as common today were considered noteworthy long ago.  Examples are the Broad-billed Hummingbird which was "extremely rare" with only two known specimens.  The English (aka House) Sparrow appeared to have been exterminated from the region since no birds could be found outside a report from 1886 at Camp Huachuca.  And, the Inca Dove is not even listed.  This bird is a relative newcomer, seemingly dependent on human establishments.
Lastly, the assortment of bird names to have faded from our books over time is interesting.  There is the Ant-eating Woodpecker (Acorn); Arkansas Goldfinch (Lesser); Dwarf Cowbird (Brown-headed); and, the Desert Sparrow (Black-throated).

People's name have come and gone within the naming of several birds.  We no longer recognize Xantus Becard (Rose-throated), Wright Flycatcher (Dusky), or the Scott Sparrow (Rufous-crowned).  Some people's names have been replaced with another's.  Swarth knew it as the Tolmie Warbler but we now credit it as the MacGillivray's Warbler (Oporornis tolmiei).

Lastly, here's a historical bird quiz for you.  This bird is now known by another name and is no longer found in the Huachucas - or even Arizona - in the same status or abundance as once experienced by Mr. Swarth.  Instead, it is now an uncommon bird that may be given "special mention" on the local birding announcements.  What bird is he discussing below?
"I found the Calaveras Warbler to be rather a common migrant in this region, and in the spring at least, occurring in the lowlands as well as in the mountain.  The earliest noted was on April 6th and the last seen on April 25th.  In the spring they were most abundant in the oaks at the mouths of the canyons, but also occurred up as high as 6500 feet.  They reappeared in the fall on August 18th, and until I left, September 5th, were fairly abundant, but frequented rather different localities than in the spring; for I took none below 5500 feet, and they were most abundant along the divide of the mountain, from 9000 to 10,000 feet, where they fed mostly in the flowers and weeds which had sprung up from the summer rains.  Both adults and young were taken at this time, but the old birds seemed to be the most numerous."

It's reading through such material that makes me look at a simple checklist in an entirely new manner.  These ornithologist's of the prior century didn't just "tick and run", moving on to the next lifer.  Instead, they experienced the birds.  They examined them.  Perhaps that tick next to a bird's name means nothing if it's not accompanied by a page of notes.  Maybe I should reevaluate my list and view each tick merely as Step One to ultimately counting that bird as "experienced" versus simply accepting it as being found.
Many older books contain a plethora of excellent information that is not just anecdotal but can be rich in identification and scientific detail that has been forgotten.  Perhaps this is due to us becoming comfortable, if not spoiled, by the excellent field guides available today where quality artwork shows us nearly all the plumages we might encounter.  The ease of these "picture books" makes it too easy to neglect spending some extra time reading and learning from some of the original ornithological masters.

Older bird books may be a little more difficult (or expensive) to find, but some can actually be found as a free download on the internet.  Nearly 40 complete books can be found at this link… 
Scroll down the page and click on the ".pdf" files that begin with "pca".

The link to this particular book just discussed is:

Go find an old bird book.  The information you read, with both detail and changes of knowledge, may surprise, impress, or entertain you. Below is a short list of some older titles.
I’ve listed several older bird books below…
1) Birds Recorded from the Santa Rita Mountains in Southern Arizona by Bailey (1923)
2) Arizona and Its Bird Life by Brandt (1951)
3) Birds of Pine-Oak Woodland in Southern Arizona and Adjacent Mexico by Marshall (1957)
4) The Birds of Arizona by Philips et al. (1964)
5) The Distribution of the Birds of California by Grinnell (1944)
6) A Distributional List of the Birds of California by Grinnell (1915)
7) Wilson's American Ornithology by Brewer (1840)
8) The Birds of New England by Samuels (1870)
9) Key to North American Birds by Coues (1872)
10) Birds of the North-West by Coues (1877)
11) Birds of Eastern North America by Maynard (1881)
12) New England Bird Life, Volumes 1 & 2 by Stears (1883)
13) Ridgway's Manual of North American Birds by Ridway (1887)
14) Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America by Chapman (1895)
15) Birds of the United States and Canada by Nuttall (1903)
16) Handbook of Birds of the Western United States by Bailey (1904)
17) Field Book of Birds of the Southwestern United States by Wyman (1925)