Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Griscom Day, PM - Birding Halibut Point, 1941

A one-per-decade series of glimpses, 1860-1960
William Ludlow, Griscom's maternal grandfather (right)
kneeling beside George Armstrong Custer,
Black Hills expedition July 18741
Raised at a nice address in New York City, Ludlow Griscom pursued birds in Central Park with his parents' opera glasses. Because of extended family trips to Europe he did not attend regular schools but became gifted linguistically. They hoped he would settle on a career in law or at least in the concert hall at the piano, but he pioneered at Cornell University to earn its first master's degree in ornithology.
Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History, 1924
Ludlow Griscom seated at left, Frank M. Chapman center1
Griscom eventually played key roles in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Boston Museum of Science, and the National Audubon Society. As international tensions heightened in the 1930s he was recruited to lead a secret team of translators at Harvard who scanned foreign journals for government intelligence.
Griscom with spotting scope, early 1940s2
The Cape Ann peninsula, projecting eastward into the ocean, intersects migration flyways and may be the first continental edge encountered by seabirds driven in by northeast storms.  The northern tip of Cape Ann offers legendary opportunities for bird watching in foul weather. It merits a stop especially on winter days.

We now rejoin Ludlow Griscom (LG), Roland Clement (RC), and Bill Drury (BD) at Halibut Point on the afternoon of December 7, 1941.

LG  Down on the rocks, two o'clock. See them? That's the only calidrid you'll see in Essex County at this time of year. Now you might have expected sandpipers on the sands of Plum Island. But these frequent rocky shores.

Purple sandpiper, Calidris maritima3
BD  Got it. There they go.

Purple sandpipers on the wing3
LG  The short greenish yellow legs and bicolor bill are unmistakable, but location is key. In flight distinguish it from the winter dunlin's mousier affect and its slimmer decurved bill, near tidal flats.

Purple sandpipers in surf3
BD  Look how they stand up to the waves!

LG   It's only a ten-cent bird, but the grittiest of the lovely. 
RC   That white speck out there beyond the green buoy, oldsquaw? I can't quite make it out. 
LG   Take another look. 
BD  Aren't you going to use your glasses. 

LG   Don't need to. Look at the length of the tail feathers. Cepphus grylle.  

RC   Ah, I should have recognized it as an alcid. Black guillemot in winter-white.

Black guillemot, Cepphus grylle3
LG   Who hears the music? 
RC   Sounds like puppies. It must be coming from behind that ledge. Are you on it, Bill? I bet it's harlequins, the holy grail of Halibut Point.
Harlequin ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus3
BD  Oh, yeah. Come on over. The light is perfect. Look at those colors. 
RC   Right in the breaking surf. Amazing. Popping up like corks. 
LG   Their unusually smooth, dense feathers trap air effectively for extra insulation and buoyancy. Histrionicus histrionicus. The name derives from the Latin word histrio, 'actor.' Same root as 'histrionics,' right? The bird calls to mind the brightly dressed harlequin performers of the Renaissance Commedia dell’arte. 
        Let's take a peek at Andrews Point while we still have some light. It's just around the corner, but we'll drive over there. Why don't you fellows circle around the quarry on the way up, check for winter finches. I'll meet you at the car. 
*  *  *
LG   Gentlemen, the radio has some astonishing news. The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor and our Pacific fleet is destroyed! We'll have to get right back to town. I have to get my linguists together.
Photo credits:
1     William Davis, Dean of the Birdwatchers: A Biography of Ludlow Griscom, 1994
2     Edwin Way Teale, "Ludlow Griscom: Virtuoso of Field Identification," Audubon Magazine # 47, 1945
3     Martin Ray 
Sources, in addition to those given in Part 1:
John Baker (President of the National Audubon Society), "Ludlow Griscom - The Man," Audubon Magazine #61, 1959.
Richard S. Heil, "Seabirds of Andrew's Point, Rockport, Massachusetts," Bird Observer, Vol. 29, No. 5, 2001

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