A Bird’s Tale

Turning the Audubon Page at Bowdoin College

Wed, 12/11/2019 - 12:00pm

Last week we had the delight and honor of being part of a wonderful event at the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library at Bowdoin College. That event is the monthly Turning of the Page of the library’s copy (one of only 120 in existence) of John James Audubon’s famous four-volume elephant folio book that illustrates all of the birds known to him at the time of its publication (between 1827 and 1838).

This page-turning event makes space in our busy lives for the contemplation of the deep connections that we have with a person like John James Audubon who was reveling in exploration of a world of natural history that was all new to him.

The folio, a large book protected behind special glass, had been open to Audubon’s ruby-throated hummingbird for the previous month. After welcoming remarks, the archivists carefully slid open a wide drawer in the cabinet and gently turned the page to what Audubon called the azure warbler, now known as the cerulean warbler. Jeff had the honor of speaking about the warbler to the observers in the room, talking about the bird’s natural history, Audubon’s experience with it, and a few of our personal stories about the cerulean warbler. While the credit for the first description and “discovery” of the azure warbler goes to Audubon’s contemporary and ornithological rival, Alexander Wilson, Audubon may have had more familiarity with the species than Wilson. We know from Audubon’s journals that he had observed and collected the species along the Mississippi River in Louisiana. He knew the song, and he mentions that it was not unusual for him to have collected five or six in a morning.

Today we know the cerulean warbler as a species that breeds roughly from the northern fringe of the Gulf States into very southeastern Ontario and barely into southern Quebec. Over the last few decades, small numbers of them are nesting in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Cerulean warblers are a species of conservation concern because they have decreased by 70-80% since the 1970s. At the same time, they are expanding northward and could conceivably become a breeding species in Maine in the ensuing decades under current climate-change scenarios.

Here in Maine the species is still very rare, with one showing up every year or two, almost always during spring migration. As young birders in Maine, the cerulean warbler was a bird that we could only imagine. For us it lived in dreams of hot humid southern forests with towering cypress trees and sycamores and cottonmouths and alligators. The first one we ever saw was on a memorable, late-May day in 1986 on Monhegan Island.

Monhegan is famous among birders because it plays host to large numbers of migrant birds in spring and fall, all packed into the relatively small space of the island. Among the great numbers of migrants there are almost always rare, off-track vagrant species from the South and West.

On that May day in 1986, we arrived on the island and immediately encountered lots of other birders as we hiked up the hill and through town. Someone we didn’t know told us that among the best birds on the islands was a swallow-tailed kite (a first for the state) around the Meadow and a cerulean warbler at Swim Beach. Because we didn’t know the person or their birding credentials, we were somewhat skeptical at first, especially of the idea of a tree-loving warbler on the shore of Swim Beach. But we became believers when a swallow-tailed kite glided past the windows of our rental apartment at the Hitchcock House soon after we arrived; later that day, we watched in awe as a brilliant azure gem, a sky-blue male cerulean warbler hopped on the sand and rockweed-covered rocks of Swim Beach hungrily searching for insects.

The incident was made even more memorable when our friend, the late Peter Vickery, decided to take the ferry over to try to see the bird in the 15 minutes available before he had to go back on the same boat. We watched the warbler from the beach as the ferry made its way into the harbor and began tying up. Just at that moment, we spotted the swallow-tailed kite soaring out from the island over nearby Manana Island and disappearing toward the mainland. Seconds later, the cerulean warbler, after using Swim Beach reliably for several days, also took off and headed purposely north. Peter, hustling up from the boat, arrived breathlessly only minutes later, only to have missed both birds. It must have seemed like a very long ride back on the ferry after such a disappointment.

The Audubon page turning at Bowdoin College happens just about every month. The staff bring in interesting speakers for their stories and inspirations based on the bird appearing on the newly displayed page. We recommend checking it out when it starts again in February.

As an aside: It’s Christmas Bird Count time! We hope you’ll consider participating in one of the upcoming Audubon Christmas Bird Counts here in Maine as we have described in some of our past columns.

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of “Birder’s Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide” from Cornell Press.