Historical Records of Sitka Birds

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a paper in an 1898 The Auk that reported on an ornithological trip made to Sitka in the summer of 1896 by Joseph Grinnell. I found it very interesting to read; mostly because it gave me some insight into the birds that were here over 100 years ago (and their relative abundance), and also because it reflected a much different time in our approach to birds.

Grinnell comments that “No birds are included of which specimens were not taken, so that the identity is correct….” In several of the species accounts, he talks about the ease (or difficulty) of collecting specimens. For example, in the account of the Steller’s Jay he writes:

By concealing one’s self and imitating their callnote, their curiosity seemingly overcomes them, and they quietly come within a few feet to investigate. In this way I succeeded in collecting a series of 30 birds which are usually very wary and difficult to approach.

This seems a little much to my 21st century birder sensibilities. In general I’m not particularly opposed to killing birds for a good purpose, but it’s easy to forget that before the invention of high-quality lenses, there was no birding; just ornithology. Ornithologists carried shotguns and studied the birds in hand; sometimes lots of birds. It was a different time, for better or worse, and this report opens a window to observe it from afar.

Within the last month or so, I found a couple of other reports about the bird fauna in the Sitka area. The first was a report by George Willett in a 1914 edition of The Condor and the second was a follow-up report by Dan Webster in a 1941 edition of The Condor that commented on species that had been overlooked or little-commented on in previous reports.

The more interesting part of it all is the reports of the relative abundance and location of birds. Some species accounts do not seem much different than ones I might give today. Others are quite different. Of course one big influence on the reporting is the amount of time the ornithologist was able to spend in the Sitka area. Grinnell spent the summer in 1896. Willett spent two summers into mid-Fall in 1912 and 1913, but included information from locals including photographer and naturalist E.W. Merrill. Webster moved to Sitka as a 9 year old in 1928 and wrote his report while a graduate student at Cornell; his Master’s thesis looked at the life history of Black Oystercatchers studied around Sitka (a brief biography in pdf and a paper from his Black Oystercatcher research in pdf).

The Red-throated Loon entry from Willett:

Fairly common summer visitant on fresh water lakes. Plentiful on salt water during migrations. According to Merrill, a pair of these birds nest on Swan Lake, near Sitka, each year. They arrive about April 15, and the eggs are deposited about June 1. During my stay in Sitka, this pair had young on the lake, and they could be seen many times each day flying directly over the town to the salt water in search of food. Their loud quacking notes could often be heard before the birds were visible.

I may be wrong, but I suspect there have not been any loons nesting on Swan Lake in my lifetime.

As another example, here are the entries for Winter Wren from each of the reports:

Tolerably common in the more open forests, particularly where there was much recently-fallen timber. Especially numerous on St. Lazaria Island where their clear sprightly songs constantly uttered, seemed scarcely in accord with the harsh cries of the thousands of Sea-fowl. (Grinnell 1898)

Common summer visitant on grass and brush lands. Especially numerous on some of the smaller islands. Was fairly plentiful as late as October 1, but probaby does not winter. (Willett 1914)

Common resident. Noted daily from February 26 to September 7 in 1940; a specimen was taken on July 25; it was a juvenile about ready to leave the nest. (Webster 1941)

In the past few months I have been thinking about putting together a checklist of Sitka birds, so reading these reports (with their checklists) has provided an interesting perspective.

I have converted the pdfs I found on-line into html and cleaned them up somewhat (the conversion process introduced some errors). They are currently available through the following links (with the original pdfs linked from each page as well):

Grinnell’s 1898 Report (Name Conversions)
Willett’s 1914 Report
Webster’s 1941 Update

Other related links of interest include:
The Searchable Ornithological Research Archive (SORA) at the University of New Mexico. This is an on-line archive of several Ornithological journals going as far bask as 1884. I was able to obtain the pdfs of the reports I’ve mentioned from that site.

History of North American Bird names in the AOU checklists from 1886-2000 This site traces the names of North American birds as they were changed, added, lumped, or split, through the official checklists put out by the American Ornithologists Union.

4 thoughts on “Historical Records of Sitka Birds”

  1. Very interesting stuff! I was especially interested by the loons, ptarmigans, owls, and the nutcracker.
    I also enjoyed how Willet uses the word “secured” for birds that were shot and put away as specimens.
    Thanks for doing all that work and keeping us up.

    Paul N.

  2. Hey Matt: Thanks so much for sending along those historic articles on Sitka birds. It’s great to have them in this computer format, rather than trying to find the originals on musty paper. Cheers — Richard

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