Sunday, July 02, 2006

Heroes of the Revolution, Part 2

Try and imagine wavy lines on your monitor and kind of 'woo woo' music as I take you back in time to the days when the Britain thought it owned half the World, and it was kind-of OK to help yourself to any bit of rock with some military significance you took a fancy to. Yes, back in the days when Heligoland really was called Heligoland, 'borrowed' by and subsequently ceded to Britain during the Napoleonic Wars, a 23 year old budding artist called Heinrich Gätke came ashore in 1837, and shortly afterwards starting shooting birds and recording what was on the island. He pretty much stuck to the task until his death in 1897 , and his researches were the first systematic site-based study of migration and vagrancy. He wrote a book, in German first, then translated in 1895 as 'Heligoland: an ornithological observatory'. Surprisingly it is still not that difficult to find, if you are prepared to pay £40-80 via abebooks or something. Well worth getting, mostly for the systematic list that includes more rarities than you can shake a stick at and some fantastic stories to boot. So, Grey Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Moussier's Redstart, Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, Eastern Crowned Leaf-Warbler and many more are recorded here - too much to list. Gaetke appears to have started, or encouraged, an industrial scale bird slaughter by small boys armed with sticks, stones and blow-pipes, and there was bird trade and almost certainly fraud. Lots of these records don't sound gen to me, although I understand that the Helgoland Records Committee is reviewing many, if not all of the old records, and I'll be interested to see what survives the cull. What do you make of this...

American Pipit (i.e. American Buff-breasted Pipit)
The first of these birds was shot on 6th November 1851 by a native gunner, whose attention was attracted by the, to him, unknown call note of the bird. It was an individual in fresh autumn plumage. The second was killed on the 17th May 1858 by the merest accident. A boy begged a shooter to let him fire a shot from his gun; he pointed the latter at one of the many Pipits that were running about, killing one which proved to be a female of this species in beautiful spring plumage.

To me, the first is just about plausible, although an extrmely sharp spot to pick out the call. The second has to be lies lies lies. Not Gaetke's lies, but I think he's been had.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of Gaetke's work are the recording of what to us are enormous numbers of common and even scarce migrants - flocks of 50+ Richard's Pipits regularly in the mid-1800s for example, that there seems to be no reason to doubt. For a man who spent so much time looking at birds, he didn't seem to get much right in his theories of migration strategy, and moult, but he was one of the giants upon which subsequent migration studies and sites were built. 'From Heligoland to the Humber' was his battlecry (of sorts) - he could see birds were crossing the North Sea and corresponded with Eagle-Clarke and others in Britain. Would Fair Isle have happened without Heligoland?

As you'll see from the photo (in the post above, for some reason I can't paste it in here) - he was no oil painting. Whereas a teenage birdwatcher of appropriate gender and inclination might feel a bit of a frisson, a stirring, a je ne sais quoi , locked up in a hostel on Fair Isle for a week with the Duchess of Bedford (below), I doubt whether you would get the same pleasure birding with Gaetke. In fact I'm pretty certain there must be worms in that coat. Nevertheless, his observations informed and motivated an entire generation of birders across Europe, established the credibility of 'isolated rock' as the bauplan, the archetype, for a successful bird observatory, and initiated the modern bird-finding mindset. for this, Heinrich G
ätke I name you a Hero of the Birding Revolution, 1st Class

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