Thursday, November 21, 2013

Caroline, Christine, and Ludlow Griscom

In the gathering at the Halibut Point parking lot it was evident that most of the folks were fairly new to birding, drawn to this Brookline Bird Club outing for the possibility of first-time sightings along the Atlantic headlands. As we set out trip leader Caroline Haines began ‘pishing’ to attract birds in the under brush.
Caroline Haines ‘pishing’

At the shoreline Caroline’s tempo quickened. “We have some birds out here. It looks like common loons. One – two – three – four – five. Wow! Six – seven – eight. They’re just beyond the black-and-white buoy. There’s a Harlequin flying by, going from left to right. And there’s another loon flying from right to left, just above the horizon.”
“There must be good fishing right there.”
I noticed a chattering sound. Caroline didn’t think it was from the loons. “That sounds like Harlequins to me, actually. I have never heard that sound in connection with loons before.” It sounded like muffled yelping. Caroline had the latest in field resources, an app called Her phone suggested listening for ‘mouse-like squeals’ and played an eerie sample. “Yes, I think that’s what we’re hearing. They must be in behind the rocks.…There they are!... They dove…. They’ll be back up.”

“Do they have red on their sides?” someone asked. “Yes they do. A mahogany red, like a gorgeous wood floor. They’re so colorful. I have them in the scope, if anyone wants a better look.”
Harlequin ducks
A woman named Christine peered into the lens. “Oh, my God! Aren’t they amazing? This is, like, crazy! Wow. You’re so pretty, you guys Yoop. Yoop-yoop. Oh my gosh, you can see it so much better in the scope. Gosh those things are beautiful. It looks like that dot is their eye.”
I asked Caroline how the ducks could make a living in the turbulent zone. “That’s where they feed on shellfish. Autopsies of Harlequins have shown them to have many healed fractures, from the time they spend in the rough breaking surf along the rocks.”

We moved on to the grout pile overlook with a satisfying variety of sightings. Someone called Caroline’s attention to a black-and-white speck on the water. They identified it as a horned grebe. Then Caroline had second thoughts.
Horned grebe
“You know, now that I have a closer look at this bird, I’m doubting that it’s a horned grebe. The size and the shape look right, but the plumage is odd. I don’t see the telltale line down the back of the neck. Let’s look it up…. Well, okay, it is. ” Just like that.
“Oh, more loons. Boy, it is a loon day today. Four of them along the water. And more up above us. One of the loon characteristics is ‘snorkeling.’ Sometimes they swim along the surface with their face in the water, looking for fish.”
Common loon
“Once in Annisquam I saw a loon in the road. It had gotten blown in somehow. They can’t take off from land. Their feet are too far behind them. So he was stuck there. People from a nearby house came out with gloves on, brought him down to the water, and he was happy.”

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I came home to a nice note from Helen Garland. She had referred this blog to her friend Roland Clement on the occasion of his 101st birthday. He responded with memories of a visit to Halibut Point 72 years ago: “On Pearl Harbor Day that year I was birding the Halibut Point area with Ludlow Griscom, Harvard's famous birdman of the day, and other Harvard Ornithological Club members.” I queried Mr. Clement further about the occasion. His reply--

Martin: How refreshingly naive it seems to have someone like you ask, "Who was Ludlow Griscom?" People were either awed by him, or hated him. I was a lucky protégé for a year or so....

Look up, in some Mass. Audubon archive or index, a poem entitled "The Grudlow Liscomb" for some flavor of "the great man" in pre-World War II days in birding circles emanating from Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology. There is also a biography, by Davis, but it misses the charisma of the man whom Roger Tory Peterson called "the court of last recourse" in matters of field identification of birds….

Every other month perhaps, I would stay overnight as guest of some HOC member, and we would join Griscom for a pre-dawn cafeteria breakfast (Bill Drury amazed us by ordering a soft-boiled egg on his gruel) before a day of birding on the coast.

This is how I got to Halibut Point on December 7, 1941. That rocky headland might have eiders, harlequin ducks, or alcids, and it was our aim to outdo our guru in first spotting some rare find. Or, heavenly luck, catch him in some hasty misidentification. But he almost always took a second look before speaking out, so we remained empty-handed.

That morning someone turned on the car radio just as announcements of Pearl Harbor's bombing first appeared. The Pacific Fleet destroyed! Impossible. Unknown to us, Griscom had been reading the foreign press for SS, but he pondered his own impressions. We were hardly halfway around our circuit of the North Shore, but our birding was over.
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Wikipedia excerpts

Ludlow Griscom (June 17, 1890 – May 28, 1959) was an American ornithologist known as a pioneer in field ornithology. His emphasis on the identification of free-flying birds by field marks became widely adopted by professionals and amateurs. Many called him "Dean of the Birdwatchers.”

Griscom helped to establish the now widely-held view that birds can be reliably identified "in the field" by looking at field marks (distinctive plumages, behaviors, etc., that are discernible from far away) rather than "in the hand" (for example, by trapping or killing).

He is best remembered, however, for his eager participation in and promotion of the rising practice of birding by eye and ear, of watching birds as a sport. His first Christmas Bird Count was in 1908, and he organized counts in the Boston area. He kept personal life and year lists: his North America species total through 1939 was 640. But his particular passion was for Big Days, a friendly competition in which a team of birders traverses a region, intending to find and identify as many bird species as possible in a 24-hour period. An excellent one-day count for Griscom in coastal Massachusetts was 160 species.

In the field, Griscom is remembered by friends and students for his virtuosity in identification, his enthusiasm and brusque sense of humor, and his great satisfaction in teaching others the pleasures of birding. Probably his most illustrious field trip companion was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who accompanied Griscom on a trip through Dutchess County, New York, in 1942.

It can be argued that Ludlow Griscom's single most important contribution to ornithology and conservation was his influence on Roger Tory Peterson, leading to the first edition of Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds in 1934.

1 comment:

  1. Wait. I'm confused. Did Roland Clement email you? That was a remarkably intelligent message. May we all age so positively. You've got 35 years of blogs coming up!