Alachua Audubon Society

A chapter of the National Audubon Society

A problem I have; plus, Louisiana Waterthrush

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I’ve been trying to pin something down, but I lack the information to do it. There’s a clutch of Snail Kite eggs in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History that was supposedly collected in Micanopy by H.H. Simpson on December 4, 1919. There are a lot of these old egg sets out there; in the days before binoculars, egg-collecting was one of the forms that “birding” took. This particular egg set would constitute the only other breeding record for Snail Kite in Alachua County, and – if it’s a valid record – it would suggest that this year’s nesting may be a temporary extension of the nesting range, rare but normal, rather than an indicator of long-range environmental changes.

But is it a valid record? That’s what I’m trying to pin down. Snail Kites normally begin nesting in March in Central Florida, and in 1919 they would presumably have nested in March or April here – not in December. So that’s one doubtful thing about it. Another is that a lot of these late 19th- and early 20th-century egg collectors, rather than listing the nest location on the specimen cards that accompanied the egg sets in their collections, listed their own hometowns instead. So how can I confirm Micanopy as the actual site of the nest from which the eggs were taken? The specimen tag in the Carnegie Museum wasn’t any help. So I contacted Paul Sykes, the Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who did a historical survey of kite nesting in Florida, and asked what he could tell me about the Micanopy record. He referred me to H.K. Swann’s “Rostrhamus sociabilis plumbeus Ridgway, Northern Everglade Kite” in volume 12 of “A monograph of the birds of prey,” published in 1934. It turns out to be an elusive book. The UF science library had one in its catalog, but now describes it as “missing.” And even if the library tracks it down, maybe it won’t tell me anything new. I’m looking for something along the lines of, “H.H. Simpson’s notes read, ‘Nest located in a willow tree at the center of the Tuscawilla Prairie, eggs collected on Dec. 4th.'” But I’m unlikely to find anything that helpful.

I rarely do find anything that helpful, in looking at old records. This is at least partly excusable, since early birders probably couldn’t imagine all the scrutiny their sightings would undergo in the decades to come. Robert McClanahan saw a Kirtland’s Warbler in 1934, or at least he said that he did: “Rare migrant. One record, a bird observed at Bivens Arm, April 26, 1934.” He didn’t try to convince us. He made no allowance for skeptics in the future. He just asserted it: “I saw this.” Yeah, maybe you did and maybe you didn’t.

Anyway, the frustration provoked by such unconfirmed and forever-unconfirmable reports has made me more thoughtful about my own birding records. When I go out now, I imagine the future sort of looking over my shoulder. “What would you want to know about this?” I ask. “What information will you wish I had recorded?”

I took a walk on Camps Canal early this morning in hopes of seeing Yellow-crowned Night-Heron and an early-migrant Louisiana Waterthrush. No luck with the night-heron. But I found the waterthrush – though putting it that way gives me too much credit. I walked right past it, but after I’d gone about a hundred feet it started calling, that hard, clinky, recognizably-waterthrushy chip note, so I turned back. It was in the slough, the shallow body of water that’s on your left as you near the Prairie. It flew up into view, slowly bobbed its tail a couple of times while I noted the long white supercilium and tea-stained flanks, moved to another branch a few yards away, and then flew across the trail and out of sight, down to the canal. I followed, and spished, and it appeared at the base of a cypress tree on the near bank. I focused on its throat, which was immaculate (Northerns have a streaked throat, though it’s too early for Northerns anyway), and then, almost immediately, it flew away. A nervous bird. I put two dead branches in the middle of the trail at that point, in the form of an X, and if you get out there today you might be able to relocate it.

Another exciting find, non-bird-related: as I was scaling the slope toward the canal, I saw a huge insect that I first took for a crane fly. But then it landed on a tree trunk and I realized that it was one of the giant ichneumon wasps of the genus Megarhyssa, the first I’ve ever seen in the wild and a real beauty. It looked something like this: https://bugguide.net/node/view/761160 Bugs otherwise were not bad. A few mosquitoes, barely noticeable. Camps Canal can be miserable with mosquitoes in the late summer, but right now it’s fine.

As I was driving home, I passed a family of Wild Turkeys grazing in a grassy lot along County Road 234. They were new for my June list too, and I think they were the last new birds I’ll get for the Challenge. They put me at 103. That should be easy to beat! Send me your totals by midnight tonight. And please list any unusual birds that you saw during the Challenge. I like to make a complete list of all the birds recorded during June.

The June Challenge party will be held at Becky Enneis’s place, 14806 NW 147th Avenue in Alachua, on Sunday, July 8th, beginning at 6:00 p.m. Bring something to rest your sit-upon upon. Bring some food to share. Soft drinks and water will be provided, but if you want beer or wine, bring your own. For a map that shows Becky’s place, click here. Becky’s is marked with the inverted red teardrop; click on the teardrop for driving directions. You can zoom the map in or out as needed.

2 Comments

  1. I just saw this and wondered if you have contacted Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh.

    Also I think H.H. Simpson was a woman.

    • Yes, I’ve been in touch with the curator at the Carnegie Museum’s bird collection, but the information that accompanies the specimen wasn’t particularly helpful: it listed Micanopy as the place of collection, and December 4, 1919, as the date, but nothing otherwise, not even the collector. However the collector’s name was given in H. Kirke Swann’s A Monograph of the Birds of Prey (Order Accipitres), Vol. 2, which said this: “A fine set of three in my collection were taken at Micanopy, Florida, December 4th, 1919, a very early date, by H.H. Simpson, from a nest of sticks and weed stalks, lined with dead leaves, in a low bush overgrown with vines.” The census of 1910 showed a Henry H. Simpson working as a clerk in a Micanopy grocery store; I don’t think there was any other H.H. Simpson on the census.

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