Sunday, November 23, 2014

Defiant Goose

This morning I was checking out the birds in the small open water area of Lake Elmo when this immature Bald Eagle took off from his perch on the ice at the middle of the lake and cruised over the open water area. The Mallards that were hanging out on the water scattered in front of the bird, but this lone Canada Goose had a different idea. He just turned towards the eagle, rose up in the water, spread his wings and hollered at him. It worked. The eagle just kept flying and returned to a spot on the ice of the lake. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book Review - Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin
Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny & Bob Montgomerie
Princeton University Press (a review copy was provided to me by Princeton University Press)
544 pp. | 8 x 10 | 94 color illus. 60 halftones.

Cloth | 2014 | $45.00 / £29.95 | ISBN: 9780691151977

I will get right to the point - I am enamored by this book. Although the title implies that it is a history of ornithology, the reader will notice that the word "history" does not show up in the subtitle of the book. Perhaps this was by design since this history book does not behave like a typical history book. Rather than the more traditional timeline approach, the book is broken into eleven topic based chapters, each with their story of how the topic evolved through time, an approach the authors thought would be "more interesting for both us and our readers and more meaningful in a broader biological sense."  I believe the have done just that. As noted in the subtitle, the book only covers the history of ornithology since Darwin since "nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution."

Each chapter begins with a full page of wonderful bird art relevant to the chapter topic. Not just good art, these paintings are also a bit of a tour through the history of bird art. Ranging from Keulemans and Hart (the era when bird art was the only depiction of birds available), to field guide artists Pratt and Tudor, and on to the more modern fine art of Bateman and Ching, each depiction provides visual context for the following text. Each chapter also contains numerous well chosen illustrations and photos of relevant subject matter as well as an informative illustrated timeline of key milestones from 1860 though 2010.

Each chapter is based on the words of the prominent ornithologists working in that field using either direct quotes from published sources or from the authors own interviews with the researchers. These provide a rich mix of context across generations of ornithological professionals and helps frame the context of each discovery and revelation in a meaningful way, often including a description of the initial hesitance or outright derision of new ideas. I particularly enjoyed how this aspect of the book made the history come alive and showed the people and their ideas in the context of the time and state of the science when they were working as well as the fact that as a group they were no different than any other segment of human society and exhibited a wide range of human quirks and foibles . Each chapter also contains a more detailed interview with a couple of the prominent ornithologists working on the subject explored in that chapter. 

Chapter one is, appropriately, a review of yesterdays birds - the paleontology of modern birds (otherwise know as today's dinosaurs). It begins just a few miles south of where I am writing this review and a few months before I was born, when John Ostrom and Greg Myer discovered the animal now known as Deinonychus - sometimes considered the most important dinosaur discovery of the mid-twentieth century. It is a good place to start. Chapter 2 continues with the Origin and Diversification of Species or how modern birds came to be; Chapter 3, Birds on the Tree of Life, explores the view of how modern birds are related to each other; Chapter 4, Ebb and Flow, delves into our understanding of bird migration; Chapter 5, Ecological Adaptations for Breeding, describes the emergence and development of our understanding of breeding biology; Chapter 6, Form and Function, explores our understanding of the internal bird; Chapter 7, The Study of Instincts, describes the journey to understand why birds do what they do; Chapter 8, Behavior as an Adaptation, integrates the discussion of behavior into the realm of the ecological context where the behavior is occurring (one of my favorite chapters); Chapter 9, Selection in Relation to Sex, takes breeding biology, behavior, and evolution and describes how the competition for mates makes many male birds look like they do (a very simple summary of this chapter, I would suggest reading it to get the full gist of the concept); Chapter 10, Population Studies of Birds, is pretty self explanatory - a journey through our understanding of bird number fluctuate what forces drive those fluctuations. The book ends with Chapter 11, Tomorrow's Birds, a sobering view of the conservation of birds and how our interest in birds have changed over the last hundred years.

The authors stated goal was to develop "the history of modern ornithology in a readable fashion." They more than succeeded in that endeavor - I have enjoyed learning of the intellectual journey each of these ornithological concepts has endured to arrive at our current state of understanding. In addition, the authors have also provided a primer on the current state of ornithological science. This book should be required reading for any student of Ornithology as well as anyone who has an interest in birds as the complex ancient creatures we share our world with.    

Sunday, November 9, 2014

When the Land Belonged to God - Charles M. Russell

Late last week I was able to visit the Montana Historical Society and show my boys one of my all time favorite paintings. We only had a short while at the historical society museum in Helena, so we went straight to the Charlie Russell section to see this painting.

When the Land Belonged to God - Charles M. Russell, Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana
I think I could probably find the spot depicted in the painting relatively easily from the horizon to the right of the bison - Square Butte and the Highwood Mountains. I had always thought of this as a depiction of buffalo as sunset, but now, after looking at the geography, I realized that this is in fact a depiction of sunrise, with the animals moving north across the Missouri rather than heading south as I had believed. If my geography is correct that would put the vantage point of this painting somewhere downstream of Fort Benton just before the Missouri makes a big bend to the south just south of the town of Big Sandy. Next time I am in that area I will have to pay attention to the skyline to the south of the river to see if I an pinpoint it a bit better than that. I would appreciate any other thoughts or comments on my speculation about this location.

When the Land Belonged to God (detail) - Charles M. Russell - Montana Historical Society, Helena, Montana
I could look at this painting for hours. Not only to appreciate the way he used bold colors in this painting to make me feel like I am sitting there at sunrise with the golden Missouri River water still streaming from the bull's beard, but also for making me feel like I had just been noticed by the bull - his tail up and looking straight at me. It gives me apprehension of an imminent close encounter and a feeling that I need to start looking for an escape route soon.

It also represents the West that Charlie Russell longed for and a time in Montana that I can only vaguely imagine and get glimpses of through the remnants of bison horns still found in the prairie grass and the bones and skulls that litter the banks of the river. What a place this must have been.

It is also home for me. I can easily imagine a scene very similar to this occurring not that long ago at the site of the house I grew up in on the banks of the Missouri River, near the mouth of Big Dry Creek, as well as my current resident above the banks of the Yellowstone River near the mouth of Alkali Creek.

One additional detail I hadn't really paid attention to before is the appearance of a sage-grouse in the foreground.

When the Land Belonged to God (detail) - Charles M. Russell, Montana Historical Society Helena, Montana

There, hiding in the branches of a beaver cut log, is a Greater Sage-Grouse. Just to the right is a wolf. How prescient Charlie Russell was to depict the three greatest wildlife challenges in the state of Montana right now. First it was the reintroduction of wolves into the Yellowstone region and re-colonization from populations to the north; then it was bison and recent efforts to fine a place for wild bison in Montana outside of Yellowstone National Park; and most recently it is the impending Endangered Species listing decision for Greater Sage-Grouse and the recent Governors executive order dealing with sage-grouse management in Montana.

I sometimes wonder what he would think of his Montana now, but I think I have a pretty good idea.

God made Montana for the wild man
for the Piegan, and the Sioux and Crow,
Saved His greatest gift for Charlie,
Said "Get her all down before she goes,
You gotta get her all down
'cause she's bound to go. 
Ian Tyson - The Gift

I was raised with the West around,
Enough to hum her tune,
But I never know the place like the old boys did,
Chinook to Mountain View.
Cause this was all a cathedral then,
And the cowboys they all knew,
That you can't keep a loop on paradise,
but she disappeared so soon,
She disappeared so soon.  
Corb Lund - Especially a Paint.