Sunday, February 4, 2024

Puffins, pipits and plovers

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the American ornithologist and painter of birds, Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Although there are no published books of his journals, Cornell University, which holds the Fuertes archive, has put online a journal kept by Fuertes while exploring the Alaskan coastline, though it is mostly a list of birds seen or shot at!

Fuertes was born in Ithaca, New York, on 4 February 1874. His father, from a Spanish Puerto Rican family, was a professor of civil engineering at Cornell University, while his mother was of Dutch ancestry. As a child, Louis became very interested in birds, being much influenced by Audubon’s Birds of America, and made his first painting of a bird aged 14; and, at 17, he became an Associate Member of the American Ornithologists’ Union. He studied architecture at Cornell University, but all his enthusiasm and aptitude was  focused on painting birds. While still an undergraduate, he was receiving commissions and having his work exhibited. After Cornell, he went to work with Abbott Handerson Thayer, a well-known American artist and naturalist.

In 1898, Fuertes made his first expedition, with Thayer and his son Gerald, to Florida, and the following year accompanied the railway magnate E. H. Harriman on his famous exploration of the Alaska coastline. In 1904, Fuertes married Margaret Sumner and they had two children. He travelled across much of the US and other countries, mostly in the Americas, always in pursuit of birds. A prolific artist, he produced illustrations abundantly, mostly for ornithological books, popular and scientific. He collaborated with Frank Chapman, curator of the American Museum of Natural History, on many assignments. While on a collecting expedition together in Mexico, Fuertes discovered a species of oriole, which Chapman named Icterus fuertesi, commonly called Fuertes’s Oriole, after his friend.

According to an old version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Fuertes work ‘is characterised by a fidelity to nature involving not only objective but subjective accuracy. His genius lay in the power to reproduce subtle, fleeting, and intangible qualities of birds that reflected their individuality to a remarkable degree, an ability as much the result of a highly sympathetic and very extensive knowledge of birds in their haunts as it was of technical skill.’ His most extensive work was a series of large plates illustrating The Birds of New York, published by the state and covering practically every species of eastern North America. He died in 1927. Biographical information can be found from Wikipedia, Cornell University’s Guide to the Louis Agassiz Fuertes Papers, or PBS.

Cornell’s guide to Fuertes’ papers mentions diaries and journals, but few, if any, have been published. In 1936, Doubleday, Doran & Co published Artist and Naturalist in Ethiopia, described as diaries kept on the Field Museum-Chicago Daily News Ethiopian Expedition, by Wilfred Hudson Osgood and Fuertes. It’s most likely, though, that Fuertes only provided the illustrations for this book. Otherwise, the Cornell Institute for Digital Collections has made freely available online diary entries written by Fuertes during Harriman’s Alaska expedition in 1899.

5 June 1899
This A.M. at Fort Wrangell, Alaska, got my first raven, & Townsend’s finch, also Stetler’s jay. Saw lutescent W., shot one, but couldn’t find it. Ridgway got a fine Oregon Junco, Fisher a red throated woodpecker, parus rufescens, & Lincoln’s finch. Heard in the forest, by Farragut bay, a hermit-like thrush song, but couldn’t find the author. The ravens made more noise even than usual. Hummers seen & heard by others of the party.

Townsend’s Sparrow in song. Its note is a typical passerella song. very clear and sweet, noticeable for the same deliberation with which the fox sparrow makes its notes. The bird was found on the sunny slope cleared of its bigger growth, facing the bay. Its appearance is somewhat thrush-like due to its heavily spotted breast and uniform brown back, though its attitudes are perfectly typical of its family.

Golden Crowned sparrows were singing at summit-White Pass. They were found in the scrub hemlock in the snow, and occasionally uttered their clear notes. The song was at once recognizable as zonotrichias, consisting of 8 notes, each perfectly distinct and true, and remarkable for the sweetness and purity of their tone: just the kind of a note one would like to find in the frosty air of the mt. tops. The attitudes and flight of the birds were exactly similar to those of the White Crowned, unless perhaps the occipital part of the crest was thrown out farther. Perhaps this appearance was due to the much darker coloration of the whole top of the head.

Mr. Ridgway got two Leucostictes (litoralis) on the R.R. track at the summit, and pipits were seen & taken. Between Juneau and Glacier bay, we saw Marbled Gull.

24 June 1899
Yesterday afternoon we were followed for hours by a large majestic bird that the various sharks aboard disagreed upon. Elliot thought he was a fulmar petrel -- while Fiske + Merriam thought it was a black-footed Albatross. Its wings were very flat -- a little down curved if anything Puffins were continually flying + little bunches from 5 to 20 or 30 would pass nearby at short intervals. They looked very curious, like parrots fore and guillemots aft. Some murrelets and one new kind of guillemots were seen; the latter white-breasted.

7 July 1899
Put off a party at Popof Island this A.M., July 7-99. and Fisher + I went ashore for about one hour, + got a pair of the big Unalaska Song Sparrow. This and the Kadiak form seen to take very kindly to the rocky shores, seldom being seen inland or in the uplands above the shore. Their song seems to preserve to a remarkable degree, its identity with that of the eastern form, tho’ the birds differ in almost every other respect.

12 July 1899
Fisher and I (many others) went ashore on the mainland at Port Clarence Bay, Alaska, and went up the stream where the ship was watering. First bird seen was a pipit (A. Pensilv. ) and soon after saw the yellow wagtail which we had found in Siberia. It turned out to be common, several specimens were obtained. Alice’s thrush was common, + obtained for the first time on the trip. Cole got a Mealy? red poll, and I found a nest with 5 eggs - both redpolls seemed common enough. About the finest sensation we had was a successful hunt after golden plover. I got 3 + F. two, all in more or less perfect summer plumage. The birds have the most beautiful calls + song. They sit at quite a distance from each other in the wet mossy hill meadows and call and answer back + forth. The calls can all be imitated by a full clear whistle, so that the birds answer quite eagerly - whip whee + a shorter note of the same notes, lower, are the common calls, but the song is a rich full warble, of a cadence - repeated - somewhat suggesting a blue-bird song done in R.B. Grosbeak quality.

Dr. F. + I, while separated by quite a distance, saw at the same time a long tailed Jaeger, sitting on a moss tuft way off on a distant hill; and unbeknownst to it and to us, he became the apex of a triangle , where F. + I were doomed to meet. Our sneak became interesting as we neared each other, + became aware of our position. The bird however, relieved us of our responsibility, + let us both out in a sportsmanlike manner by catching sight of me first, and rising with a scream which I took for alarm at first, but when he repeated it came squealing straight at me, I saw that it was defiance, and there was nothing to do but wait for him to get the right distance and shoot in self-defence. When I had come up to the beautiful bird, + was kneeling over it, Fisher’s voice came up the rise -- “let me take the other,” + I looked up to see the mate rising as he approach, at rt [angles] to the course of the first one. Nearer he came, + I itched as he passed over me at nearly 40 ft. I could see him eye me, + his squealing cries were so near that their quality seemed surprising -- very like big hawk’s cries. His long tail feathers oscillated + spread slightly at the tips with each wing stroke. He went right by me, straight on towards Dr. F. + when he got just right -- bang -- and with wings set in a V he came smoothly down into the grass, and we sat together in the mossy hillside and held the first long-tailed jaegers that either of us had ever seen to shoot at. The feet were black, like black rubber, and the rest of the legs light bird blue and the bill black with a “milky flesh color” interior.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 4 February 2014.

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