Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Heroes of the Birding Revolution VII - Joseph Grinnell

Joseph Grinnell 1877 - 1939

A former biology teacher with a lifelong interest in natural history became California's foremost ornithologist and mammalogist. He was the founder and first director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley from 1908 until his death in 1939.

Joe was an enthusiastic field biologist who wanted to understand the relationship between an organism and its environment. He invented, or at least defined, what we now understand to be competitive exclusion. He pioneered and invented the concept of the ecological niche (published 1924) and gathered evidence to show that two different species cannot occupy the same niche at same time, because one will exclude the other. Millions of students worldwide are taught this, and it shapes their world view, but few know where it came from. Blame Joey.

Of course, this being the early 20th century, the art of writing wasn't quite dead, and his scientific works are quite entertaining to read. Check this, from California’s grizzly bears

Opinion frequently expressed by old-timers to the effect that grizzlies would not tolerate the presence of black bears within their home territories is borne out by the history of the respective geographic ranges of the two species: As that of the grizzly in certain parts of the State shrank, that of the black bear expanded - at least in those directions where factors of climate, food, and shelter were favorable to the latter species. Thus, at the south, in the Tehachapi-to-Santa Barbara tangle of chaparral-clothed mountains, up even to the 1890's the metropolis of grizzlies, as these beasts vanished, blacks (or browns) came in from the southern Sierra, to the eastward, spread and multiplied, until according to Forest Service reports they are now relatively numerous in Los Padres National Forest.

Grinnell was devoted to wildlife conservation, particularly through the National Park system, and performed numerous long term studies in Yosemite national Park. He recognised that California's wild lands and wildlife were under threat and used his ecological studies to suggest management plans. Perhaps his greatest insight was in recognising the value of baseline data - going out into the countryside and recording accurately what was there, such that 'after the lapse of many years, possibly a century, the student of the future will have access to the original recordof faunal conditions in California'. It took us in Britain over 50 years to catch up with that.

His strength was in accurate observation and record keeping: Grinnell and coworkers collected more than 20,000 specimens, took about 2,000 photographs, and filled 13,000 journal pages at over 700 study sites. Working for Joey sounds like hard slog - he required more from his collectors than the ability to bring home a dead bird in a bag. Each specimen had to be accompanied by detailed notes on the circumstances of its collection and (here comes the ecological niche bit), the surroundings and the weather. But don't be fooled into thinking he was dry and boring. Have a scout through his field notebooks, starting here and you see he's just a birder at heart. Good man. He was a keen student of subspecies too, and began to put two and two together regarding the role of natural selection in shaping ecological communities.

His vision is being followed up too... there is now a resurvey project going back to his old haunts

Many of his books and articles describing Californian avifauna are online (google them), but among the areas where he was ahead of his time are things like this:
Risks incurred in the introduction of alien game birds." Science 61:621-623

where he pointed out the detrimental effects of exotic introductions on native communities.

To my mind, this is the best bit... for all the great philosophers out there who believe they were the first ones to suggest that vagrant birds might be pioneers of new breeding or wintering areas, I'm afraid Joey got there before you. Read this and weep, from The role of the accidental. Auk 39 (1922): 373-380.

'But before the individuals within the metropolis of a species succumb directly or indirectly to the results of severe competition, or those at the periphery succumb to the extreme vicissitudes of unfavorable conditions of climate, food or whatnot obtaining there, the latter have served the species invaluably in testing out the adjoining areas for possibly new territory to occupy. These pioneers are of exceeding importance to the species in that they are continually being centrifuged off on scouting expeditions (to mix the metaphor), to seek new country which may prove fit for occupancy. The vast majority of such individuals, 99 out of every hundred perhaps, are foredoomed to early destruction without any opportunity of breeding. Some few individuals may get back to the metropolis of the species. In the relatively rare case two birds comprising a pair, of greater hardihood, possibly, than the average, will find themselves a little beyond the confines of the metropolis of the species, where they will rear a brood successfully and thus establish a new outpost. Or, having gone farther yet, such a pair may even stumble upon a combination of conditions in a new locality the same as in its parent metropolis, and there start a new detached colony of the species.'

See also this 'amusing' cartoon suggesting (horrors!) that birders might get frustrated by taxonomists recognising and naming taxa that are difficult to distinguish from each other. See, if you think you were the first to think of that, Grinnell was miles ahead.

That cartoon also demonstrates that the standard of publishable humour has improved dramatically in the last 80 years.

Joseph Grinnell - visionary, cleverclogs, pioneer of Biodiversity Action Plans(!), ecologist, taxonomist, collector, curator, rarity hunter, enthusiast. You shaped our modern view of what drives birds to do what they do. In the spirit of internationalism, I hereby name you a Hero of the Birding Revolution.

"We’d be sitting in camp, and we’d both be skinning. Pretty soon, he’d throw a rat over to me, and he’d say, 'Here, Russell, finish this one up,' and he’d just ... pick up his notebook, and start writing."
Ward Russell

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Down on the beach

Newtonhill smelt of cow-crap this morning. Actually, it still smells like that as I'm writing this (evening). I went to find the source of this scatalogical horror, which turned out to be a fertilised stubble field up by the A90. Birds in said field were 7 Carrion Crows, 1 Rook, 2 Magpies and a Skylark. Not very exciting, but slightly better was a pack of birds around the feeders in one of the gardens by the track, which included at least 3 Yellowhammers. Btw will someone tell my why we stopped calling them Yellow Buntings?

Emberiza citrinella, the real Yellow Bunting

Emberiza sulphurata - the vaguely Yellow Bunting

High tide when I got down to the beach this morning, so I settled down to count the shifting hordes of roosting waders. Here they are, look.

A wee secret, some more were hiding on the other side of the rock. So 2 Purple Sandpipers, 15 Ruddy Turnstones and 2 Common Redshanks. Sorry it's crap, but it was so murky I had to go up to ISO800.

Offshore, I was looking for some faux-borealis Common Eiders. Nothing with decent scapulars today, but cop a load of the bill colour on this one.

Sorry, bit of an eider overload there. Also offshore, a rather spankingly white Red-throated Diver fishing in the bay (and another one going north), a really meaningful Shag, afew Common Guillemots and Razorbills back and forth, the usual assortment of gulls, but not many of them, and some Northern Fulmars inspecting the cliffs.

A family of hybrid Hoodie x Carrion Crows were feeding on the clifftop grass - happy slapping hoodies with ASBOs - and a couple of Rock Pipits.

In Cage and Aviary Birds this week... how not to kill your Cockateils by scaring them in the night. (Strobelights and fireworks are right out!). A few 'Pekin Robins' (Red-billed Leiothrix) going cheap and blimey - pairs of Marbled Ducks at £30 a time! Cripes, at that price I think I might get a couple. I'll release them on Rutland Water when I go down for the Bird Fair. Future-read all about it: '2007 was the hottest summer on record in Mediterranean North Africa, a possible consequence of global warming, and widespread dessication and desertion of the Tunisian breeding lakes was reported in late July. That these wary and unringed birds should turn up at the right time does suggest that at least some of these wild birds may have headed north...'
You might be wondering whether there was a point to that, and you'd be right.

But I guess it is possible to make arguments for the wild origin of the most obvious escapes. Conversely, it's possible to come up with convoluted escapee arguments for the most obvious vagrants. I was going to mention some examples, but it's too inflammatory!

Since I mentioned the delights of my ex-home village of Winchburgh, I noticed I'm getting a lot of hits from people doing Google searches for that very village. So I'll set the record straight right away and say it was a very welcoming place in no way deserving of being slagged off by my exaggerations about the level of air-rifle crime and other nefariousness. It is however a matter of public record that certain of our neighbours were known to get drunk and head out on spontaneous Orange Marches round the town, complete with their instruments, in the wee small hours on more than one occasion. I'm sure it doesn't happen any more :-$

Sunday, January 21, 2007

It's fun to have fun, but you have to know how

More things Martin does not recommend.

Holding up the cup and the milk and the cake and these books, and the fish and the rake. The toy ship, a little toy man, and with my tail I can hold a red fan. Fanning with the fan as I hop on the ball. But that is not all. Oh no, that is not all....

It was bound to end in disaster - I read it in a book. Please send cards and flowers to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Fell on your Head Unit.

While I'm on the subject, other things Martin doesn't recommend almost certainly include:
Green Eggs and Ham
Tweetle Beetles.

But to business. I was FINALLY up to a bit of light birding. The emergency medical quarantine squad have stood down... bits of my spleen have signed contracts with the Ministry of Defence, probably, and Birdspotting lay before me today like the odour of myrrh, like sitting under a sail in a good wind, like the home that a man longs to see after years spent as a captive. But I could have picked a better day for it. Chilly. Plan A was to find a big congregation of gulls. Disaster! Couldn't find any. Options now limiting, cos there weren't any other birds around either. A Common Redshank on the beach, and a small flock of Common Eiders offshore. OK then let's sort out this borealis Eider nonsense. I've never got my head round borealis Eiders, but suddenly it seems like everyone is seeing them. Or at least they're on BirdGuides every flipping day. I can do that too. In fact today I had 5 Common Eiders with bright orange/yellow tones in their bills, two with obvious 'sails' (I assumed these were long scaps though BWP says they're tertials) courting a reddish female. How easy is that? :-) I'm certain they're ALL local breeders and not borealis at all. Maybe if someone could show me a real borealis I might see the error of my ways.

Proper birding soon. Meanwhile remember... when beetles battle beetles in a puddle paddle battle and the beetle battle puddle is a puddle in a bottle... they call this a tweetle beetle bottle puddle paddle battle muddle.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

My tweet mag

For sale in this week's Cage and Aviary Birds...

Face it, it's mostly budgies, canaries and African Grey Parrots, but other interesting stuff includes

European Eagle Owls
Snowy Owls
Red-footed Falcon
Golden Eagles
Redpolls - all flavours
Bufflehead (£300 a pair)
Hooded Mergansers (£125 pr)
Meadow and Rock Pipits
'Siberian' Bullfinches

The price of Hooded Mergs and Buffleheads compares to about £500 for a pair of African Greys :-O

Things Martin does not recommend

No 2)
Wheelchair races down a flight of stairs.

Please send cards and flowers to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Testicular Bruises Unit.

No. 1 in a potentially long-running series

Things Martin does not recommend:
1) Debriding the infection with a hot kitchen knife.

Please send flowers and cards to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Idiotic Burns Unit.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Bring out your dead

Eugh. I'm sick. The doctor says he hasn't seen anything like it outside 18th century French medical textbooks. I didn't know it was possible to catch dropsy off a friendly goldfish. And boils! Anyway, I'm away to debride the infection with a red hot kitchen knife, so here's some pictures. Normal service will be resumed etc etc.

Things that aren't looking forward to global warming. No. 1 Rock Ptarmigans

Things that aren't looking forward to global warming. No. 2 Arctic Hares. Especially that one.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hero of the Revolution addendum

Thanks to Lee Sterrenburg from Bloomington Indiana, who posted this OED entry on BIRDWG01. In Harry Witherby's 'Hero' entry I overlooked (in fact it's been widely overlooked) that his Practical Handbook (1920) contains the first recognised use of the term 'vagrant' in ornithology. can that be true? I'll be checking older books tonight.


vagrant, n. and a.

Add: [A.] 4. Ornith. A bird that is encountered outside its normal area of distribution or migration; spec. (in the U.K.), one that has been recorded fewer than twenty times in the British Isles.

1920 H. F. WITHERBY et al. Pract. Handbk. Brit. Birds I. 140 The Lapland Bunting... has occurred [in] many English counties as vagrant. 1953 D. A. BANNERMAN Birds Brit. Isles I. 337 The snow finch has occurred as a vagrant in several other countries of eastern Europe. 1983 Birds Spring 15/2 The vagrant from the Continent, was found sheltering under a car. Many birds are blown off course during gales. 1988 Bird Watching Aug. 46/2 Returning migrants are beginning to appear and by the end of the month we could witness good seabird movements and the first North American vagrant.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Lest we forget, again again

I found this photo getting all scratched and fading, so thought best to get it scanned before it goes away forever. 13th March 1989, Baltimore Oriole at Roch, a long way down in Wales. I remember we's spent all day on Saturday (12th) showing an American birder (argh!, forgotten his name) round Norfolk etc. to tick off Willow Tits and other burdies. Then as Satan's way of saying thank you for being so good, we were rewarded with a Baltimore Oriole (it was on a taxonomic holiday as Northern Oriole in those days) at Roch. So it was back in the car and AWAY!

Baltimore Oriole (photo by Pete Wheeler)

Mind, it didn't show straight away. There was an hour wait, which wasn't pleasant.

I immortalised it with an inaccurate sketch that I coloured in on the way home.

I wish I could remember that American birder's name, cos although he didn't come all the way across for the Oriole, he did twitch Golden-winged Warbler a month earlier, on account of them not being particularly easy to see back home. Would there have been a revolution if that bird had gone in Category D?
... where it belongs!!!!! :-O :-) :-)))) joke

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I thought it might be a bit of a hoot to make an early start and go down to Ferryden to see this Bonaparte's Gull. Must be 15 years since I've seen one. Unfortunately, when it came to this morning, I couldn't be bothered. Something to do with my unhealthy obsession with Princess Leia, and playing PS2 Star Wars Lego II until the wee hours. So I ended up walking round Newtonhill instead, where the only thing of any remote interest was a White-throated Dipper singing lustily on the Elsick Burn. He must be keen to get started. Whipped out RememBird.... unfortunately, it's another one that suffers from background noise, in this case on account of the bird being shy, and stood on a rock in the middle of a babbling brook next to the A90. But turn your bass down and everything else up, and it might be tolerable. Everything louder than everything else.

White-throated Dipper, Newtonhill

And I finally went back to ASDA to pick up the prints of those Grey Partridges that turned up in the garden across the road last September during the muckspreading (ancient Kincardinshire fertility ritual). They were well worth waiting 4 months for. NOT! :-) I'd have posted them here just now, but unfortunately the rest of the film is happy smiling faces of my kiddies playing in puddles, so Diane's Mum has snaffled them for the mo. Will post when we get them back.

Saturday, January 06, 2007


I'm glad that's over, got my 2006 records into Excel ready to go to Andy (County Recorder). I decided that rather than do any descriptions... I'd just give the address of relevant blog entries to back up (or not) anything I might have seen. It's more fun that way.

Random Horned Lark

Sorry so sorry - I forgot who I stole this photo off, so if it's yours... please leave a comment with permission to use it. :-) The Newmachar Common Buff-finch. Great photo, whoever you are. And thanks!

Friday, January 05, 2007


Y'know, sometimes I miss Winchburgh, where we used to live in West Lothian. It had character. And characters. Rarely would you go out birding without meeting an air-rifle-toting teenager taking pot-shots at the coots, or some seriously badger-baiting individuals with dogs, looking for active setts, and sometime badger-gassing, buzzard shooting, etc . On one memorable occasion I was walking down the Union Canal and met a tousled young gentleman trying unsuccessfully to hide at least three (3!) Pheasants inside his coat. Then there was the landfill site, home of Glaucous Gulls... if you didn't mind the management threatening to throw you off the land. And the beautiful farmland full of Tree Sparrows, now in the process of being trashed by house builders. Problem with Newtonhill is that it's too posh - we don't get any of that. The village does have its bad boys, but they just hang around the bus shelter drinking Diamond White, if I'm around to buy it for them. Face it, the schemiest thing you're likely to bump into here is me. And I'm a pussycat, it's just my coat that smells.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

No! I don't need to make any. Though I have kindly distributed a list of suggested resolutions to my family and friends.

Actually I've resolved to be less tolerant and open minded, and to drip more sarcasm. So look out.

Also, on the birding front, I have resolved to go for a modest 140 year list in the strict boundaries of my Newtonhill patch, which is here.... Although that sounds pitifully easy, when I think about it there's only about 90-100 that are reasonably guaranteed, even with a modicum of persistence. So I'll have to dig the rest out, and one had better be a BB rarity. If I'm desperate I'm going to annex Cove.

I'm currently on about 30! So well on target :-$
5 Purple Sandpipers were with 14 Ruddy Turnstones on the rocks amid the gull roost this afternoon. 5 Carrion Crows noisily mobbing a Common Buzzard along the clifftops, and my first dilemma of the year - a couple of Hooded x Carrion Crow 'x-generation' hybrids in the cow field north of the Elsick Burn. Can I count them as both species? We do get some good hybrid combinations here - one brood in particular of 4 birds from a hybrid x hybrid cross had one 'dark' hoodie-lookalike, one 'speckled' hoodie lookalike, one normal 'Carrion' lookalike and one runty black one that could hardly fly.

Scanning 6 square miles of North Sea was rewarded with 1 Guillemot on the water.

Thanks for your messages of support regarding uptake of IOC names. Apparently I don't need to cos you all hate me already.

Monday, January 01, 2007

In the interests of complete-itudity

Just back from the beach at Newtonhill is a sloping cow-pasture with a half-hearted spring/burn running through it, notable cos it always looks like there should be Yellow Wagtails running around it in spring (there never is). But it does build up a flock of Rock Pipits during the winter - over 50 in 2005/6 - that feed inconspicuously among the wet grasses. I always feel obliged to spend 30 minutes scoping the field for Water Pipits (no luck there either). Anyway, this year there hasn't been very many Rockits at all in that field - max was 13, put up by a dog-walker, and his dog, on 17th December. Hoping for better things. 30 Ruddy Turnstones on the beach on 17th too, but disappointingly no Purple Sandpipers at that point.

Cripes, this stretch of North Sea is dead during the mid-winter. And its cold. So cold. Ach, comrade, it isz zo cold. Occasional auks flying past, with 3 Razorbills fishing in synchrony behind a Red-throated Diver on 17th. We've also picked up a flock of 11+ Mallards, that swim around with the Common Eiders and roost with the Herring Gulls on the rocks.
After their traditional month off, a couple of Northern Fulmars were back at the cliffs on 24 December, with a few more going south and a feeding party of 7 on the water. Highlight of my birding that morning though was the delightful smell of bacon sandwiches wafting down from the houses at St Ann's. Oooh, no, not quite - the highlight was the delightful smell of 11 Purple Sandpipers with the Turnstones on the rocks. There were 73 Eurasian Curlews in the fields at Cran Hill on 24th too. It's not much, but it's something.

There's a couple of Peregrines in residence too, hunting pretty much all the time in and around the Newtonhill area, so plenty of hot all bird action to keep me occupied.

This week, I am mostly looking forward to:
1) Breaking the seal on a virgin notebook for 2007.

I am mostly not looking forward to:
1) Sorting out 2006 records for the County Recorder. grrr.... I hate those difficult choices. Do I include Garden Warblers? They're as common as muck but all mine are migrants. Does anyone care how many pairs of Sedge Warblers bred?

I also think, in the spirit of internationalism and solidarity with the working birders of the World, I might adopt IOC official English names :-) It sounds like a good way of making sure everyone hates me.

Random recommendation.
This was sent to me in error, I think. from BEYOND THE GRAVE!! oooooooh!

With the greatest interest and never-slackening attention I read Tom McKinney's website Skills Bills. Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. Here is a website that I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages. It gives a truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is the Proletarian Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. These problems are widely discussed, but before one can accept or reject these ideas one must understand the full significance of such a decision. Tom McKinney's website will undoubtedly help to clear this question, which is the fundamental problem of the universal workers' movement.
Nikolai Lenin
(Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov)

It must be true- I couldn't make it up....

... The freezer is back

... It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnent. In these blissful curcumstances , what is there to read?

Naturally, Cage and Aviary Birds.

Well that's what I've been reading recently. And what delights lay within? Why... For Sale... Eagle Owls. In the 'Found' column, an escapee Eagle Owl. Everything else is lost canaries, budgies, cockateils, Mealy Redpolls (eh?). Eagle owls!!!! No rubythroats just now. Can you see where this would be going, if I wasn't in such a good mood?? Happy New Year everyone!

I *have* been out birdspotting, but it wasn't very interesting. Promise I'll spill the beans tomorrow.

Thanks to George Orwell for the first para.