Tuesday, 20 September 2016

What's in a Name? Leonhard Stejneger (1851-1943).

It could be argued that one of the most effective forms of education, if one has a mind to put the experience to good use, can be found through travel (whether that be near or far matters not).  My encounter in May with a White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri which appeared on the sea just off the Varanger Peninsular in the Arctic Circle has since my return home taken me down a number of learning paths.  One such route led in the direction of Leonhard Stejneger, someone that until May 2016 I had never consciously given any thought to, and if I’m honest neither had I ever given much thought to the sub-species of White-winged Scoter.

Before moving on to Stejneger let me note that Melanitta deglandi was used by Charles Bonaparte as the scientific name for the nominate (first to be described) species of White-winged Scoter which is a North American species.  The name was used by Bonaparte in 1850 to honour Côme Damien Degland (1787-1856).  Degland was a director of the natural history museum in Lille, France and author of a two volume work on the ornithology of Europe.  Stejnegeri was added to name the Siberian sub species at a later date and thus extended the naming into what is known as the trinomial system, which extends the binomial system when there are known sub species

White-winged Scoter Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri 
Leonard Stejneger was born in Bergen, Norway and his education included attendance at University in Oslo, and as a young man he studied birds in Norway and the Tyrol.  An interest in natural history began at a young age and by the time Stejneger was 16 he had a printed catalogue of birds and he had acquired skills painting in watercolour.  He went on to study law and had a very brief career as a lawyer.  No doubt stemming from this experience in the field of law, Stejneger had a deep knowledge of Latin and Greek and a number of modern languages.  Shortly after his death in 1943 a friend, Thomas Barbour, acknowledged in an article in The Auk (Vol. 61 No2 1944), that this linguistic skill had no doubt helped his friend’s following of nomenclature over the years.  Stejneger had worked at the Smithsonian Institute for over 60 years and was elected to the International Committee on Zoological Nomenclature in 1898.

Stejneger moved to the USA in 1881 and in 1887 became a citizen of the USA.  Within months of his arrival in the USA Spencer Fullerton Baird of the Smithsonian Institute found him a position with the Signal Corps.  Baird was noted for his encouragement of young naturalists and ornithologists and ensured that they found places on various expeditions, and in turn they would provide specimens and information for the Smithsonian Institute.  In 1882 Stejneger was commissioned by Baird to go to Bering Island where Georg Steller had in the previous century made his observations and descriptions of wildlife including Steller’s Sea Cow.  Steller’s Eider, Spectacled Cormorant, Sea Otter and Fur Seal where also seen during these explorations.    For eighteen months Stejneger travelled in Steller’s footsteps and on his return he was appointed Assistant Curator of Birds at the institute, of course by the time of this trip the Sea Cow had long been extinct and the Spectacled Cormorant more recently so.  Stejneger completed Bulletin 29 of the U S National Museum on the results of his ornithological explorations of the Commander Islands, which take their name from Commander Vitus Bering, and of which Bering Island is a part, and Kamchatka in which 400 species are described or noted.  In 1889 Stejneger took charge of the reptile and amphibian section of the Smithsonian Institute and eventually wrote over 400 scientific papers on these subjects as well as birds of Japan and the northern Pacific Islands.

Over the years Stejneger made several trips to Alaska during which he was involved in study of the Fur Seals which were now very valuable business to the United States of America.  It is said that in a very short time such trade had covered any costs involved in the purchase of Alaska from Russia.  During his travels Stejneger continued to collect much information concerning Georg Steller which finally resulted in a comprehensive biography of Steller, published in 1936, a few years before Stejneger died at the age of 91.  The biography makes much use of Russian and German records, again showing that the linguistic skills in translation were again put to good use.  In the article in the Auk, mentioned above, his friend Barbour notes that the biography was praised by peers of Stejneger, but the author had been saddened by the fact that it had not been widely read by the general public.   Stejneger dedicated the book to Baird and in the preface acknowledges Baird’s role in sending him to Bering Island and notes how he named the highest mountain on the island Mount Steller and named a rocky arch through which Steller must have often walked Steller’s Triumphal Arch.  I managed quite easily to track down a copy of the biography which was reprinted in 1970 and strongly recommend it for reading by anyone interested in natural history and the early exploration of areas such as Lake Baikal, Kamchatka, Bering Island and Alaska by Steller and Bering (available on Amazon).  Unlike Stejneger, whom Barbour describes as a very talented artist, Steller for all his qualities as a botanist and naturalist, was anything but skilled at art, but fortunately he had his own artists allocated to him on his travels.  These travels of course ended tragically for Steller, Bering and many of the ships crew that accompanied them.

Feather from Steller's Sea Eagle from my collection.
Baird died in 1887 at which time Stejneger was working through the Hawaiian collection of his fellow Norwegian, Valdemar Knudsen.  In tribute to Baird, Stejneger named one of the collection Oreomyotis bairdi, which has the common name of Kauai Honeycreeper.  Unlike a high percentage of honeycreepers that had been found in Hawaii this species is still extant, but critically endangered.  (The plight of the Honeycreepers does not make for happy reading).  At another time he also honoured one of the United States giants of ornithology, Robert Ridgway for whom at the time he worked as assistant at the Smithsonian, by creating the genus Ridgwayia for the species more commonly known as Aztec Thrush.  I’ve also found that Stejneger has links with our local ornithologist Henry Baker Tristram, born in the village of Eglingham, Northumberland, a founder member of the BOU and perhaps best known for his naturalist travels in the Middle East.  This link concerns a petrel found in Japan by Lt. G Gunn of the royal Navy, and which was later sent to Tristram who sent it on to Stejneger.  In an unpublished paper Stejneger referred to this species as Oceanodroma tristrami and this name was later to become the scientific name when applied in a published paper by Osbert Salvin.  Incidentally there is to be a talk concerning the ornithology of Henry Baker Tristram at the Natural History Society of Northumbria on Friday 17th March 2017.

Stejneger is himself honoured in a number of species names including birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish.  I’ve been unable to ascertain the true number, although an internet site mentions 2 mammals, 16 reptiles and 11 birds.  I believe that may well be an under estimate and in any event did not include fish and amphibians.  Stejneger’s Petrel Pterodroma longiirostris is one such species, and in this case it is the common name which is recognised.  It is here that confusion can occur as I found that Tristram’s Petrel Oceanodroma tristrami, mentioned above, has also been known as Stejneger’s Storm Petrel!

Whilst I don’t intend to offer a long confusing list of species, it is worth considering some that bear the Stejneger name.  In 1883 Stejneger collected a beach worn skull on the coast of Bering Island and this was later in 1885 examined by Fredrick W True.  The scientific name given to the species was Mesoploden stejnegeri more commonly known as Stejneger’s Beaked Whale.  Perhaps a more interesting species, at least to British bird-watchers is Saxicola maurus stejnegeri, a sub species found in Britain in 2012 and after DNA analysis confirmed to be the sub species commonly known as Stejneger’s (Siberian) Stonechat.  I mentioned Hawaiian Honeycreepers above, and one now extinct species is known as Hemignathus stejnegeri.  Then there are Mindanao Horned Frog Mogophys stejnegeri, Stejneger’s Pit Viper Trimeresurus stejnegeri, both Asian species, and Scaphognathhops stejnegeri, a fish from South East Asia, and so the list goes on.

As I read about Leonard Stejneger I came to the conclusion that he was very well respected amongst his peers and young naturalists whom he supported, and that his services were well recognised.  Stejneger was a life member of the Bergen Museum and in 1900 he was awarded at the Paris Exposition for his work on the conservation and management of Fur Seals.  In 1923 he was elected to the National Academy of Science and in 1939 was made a Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of St Olaf.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

St Mary's Island

High in the sky is a bird on a wing
Please carry me with you
Far, far away from the mad rushing crowd
Please carry me with you
Again I would wander
Where memories enfold me
There on the beautiful island of dreams

 Lyrics of the Springfields

13th Sept.  I regret that I missed the photography opportunity recently when the Tall Ships left Blyth Harbour and sailed past St Mary’s Island, but at least I was on the island under a September sun yesterday.  We were able to look over a flat calm North Sea and watch some rather threatening sea mist gather over the horizon.  Sadly that mist is upon us today and has put an end to our short Indian summer in the Northeast of England.

Sam mentioned to me that some gent had recently reminded us that St Mary’s Island isn’t really on island.  I feel that view whilst geographically correct is a rather pedantic view lacking in imagination, so I don’t intend to give the gent in question any credit for his learned view.  Try telling the families enjoying the rock-pools to either side of the causeway that they aren’t approaching an island with Smugglers Creek to the north of it, where Anthony Mitchell, a customs man, was found dead in 1722, probably murdered by smugglers.  Or telling Thomas Bates who owned the island in the 1580s in his capacity of Surveyor for Northumberland under Elizabeth 1st.  Or the Russian sailors put into isolation here when they were struck down by cholera as they journey to fight against Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops.  As far as I’m concerned it’s an island!

The lighthouse was reflected wonderfully in the pools left by the ebbing tide, but a decent photograph was never going to be possible due to the folk along the causeway enjoying the September sun.  The island itself was peaceful and a few images were obtained.  We also watched a couple of Grey Seals in the sea, although bird passage was scarce   with only Gannets, Eider Ducks, Cormorants, a single Guillemot and waders being seen.  The present lighthouse was officially opened in 1898, although it is said that a light was provided in the tower of now non-existent chapel dedicated to St Helen as far back as the 11th century.

The rather attractive, but probably often ignored window of the visitor centre on the island
Before walking down to the island we looked in the crematorium grounds and found very little in the way of bird life, but did find one Speckled Wood Butterfly.  As we walked down to the island we bumped into BR and enjoyed a chat.  I seem to remember that my first ever encounter with BR was down at St Mary’s Island some years ago as we watched  Roseate Terns perched on the rocks.  I remember it was August and a time when local folk on a certain Birdforum used to meet up and socialise.  Such social events seem to have petered out years ago as did my involvement in the forum.   The Roseate Terns back then had begun their migration from Coquet Island to West Africa.  There were no Roseate Terns to be found today, but there was a number of Sandwich Terns, both adult and juvenile.

Sam watches from the island
Further along the pathway we watched Ringed Plover, Sanderling, Turnstone Dunlin and Redshank feeding beneath us and we chatted to another pair of acquaintances.  Before we had reached the island we had added Oystercatcher, Curlew and Golden Plover to the wader list along with many more Redshanks and many more Ringed Plovers in North Bay. The occasional Eider Duck was seen on the sea and there was numbers of both Rock Pipit and Pied Wagtail present around the shore area.



 Before we walked onwards to Seaton Sluice we enjoyed an ice-cream.  It remains a mystery to me why ninety-nines are not called ninety-nines these days.

The fact that birdlife was scarce did nothing to lessen the enjoyment of the walk and we had in any event plenty to talk about.  From the headland at Seaton Sluice we watched a single dark phase Arctic Skua fly south.  We had earlier been told by another friend and local that there had been quite a passage of divers and Meadow Pipits earlier in the day.  We didn’t get much else than the Arctic Skua, more Gannets, the odd Fulmer and a bit chilled as the sun lowered, although it has t be said we were only in shirt sleeves.  We found one Painted Lady ButterflyAfter a look around the area we decided that it was time for fish and chips, as had many other folk so the queue was rather long.  Worth the wait though and we sat and ate our meal on the outside tables as the regular Kestrel hovered over the dunes, as the sun prepare to set.  Rather oddly I had been asked about and hour before if I had taken images of the sunset.  Could I have missed one this evening I wonder?

I must go and see if Delilah is OK in cold and damp.  She returned sometime ago and says hello.

Delilah, safe and well, but hoping I think to call in!

Friday, 2 September 2016

Druridge Dragons, Butterflies and Birds

1st Sept.  At last, a local trip to one of my favourite areas in Northumberland.  Lee and I spent a few hours between Cresswell and Druridge Pools after cancelling a proposed trip to Low Newton.  We made a good decision.

Avocet juveniles 

Avocet juvenile

Two species seen regularly in the area now reflect very much the ever changing bird population of Northumberland and we watched them at Cresswell Pond today.  I’ve never seen so many Little Egrets (14, there may have been 15 as one was seen later feeding alone and well hidden in the pool just south of Cresswell pond) in Northumberland before, although I was well aware of the influx of these birds in recent weeks.  The other species was of course the Avocets that have successfully bred again and that allowed ample opportunity for close up photography.  There was almost as many Grey Herons as there was Little Egrets around the pond and four Greenshanks were also found, as were a small number of Black-tailed Godwits and a lone Common Sandpiper.

Little Egret

Little Egret and Greenshank
We moved along to Druridge Pools where the sun had brought out numbers of butterflies along the path to the hides.  The first sight that we picked up wasn’t a butterfly, but a pair of mating Common Darter Dragonflies in the wheel position.  Dragonflies are wonderful creatures and there were numbers of Common Darters today.  From the movement of the male’s head it appeared that it was keeping a close eye on me as I took the photographs, but there was no way the wheel was going to break.  In true Blue Peter fashion Lee showed me an image he had taken earlier and I include it here.  We think it s a dragonfly larvae, but would be pleased if anyone can identify it as I’m non too sure having looked at my book.

Common Darter

Any ideas?

 Butterflies along the pathway were Large White, Small White, Speckled Wood in numbers, Painted Ladies (we saw at least three), Peacock and Wall Brown.  Over the past week or so I’ve had numbers of butterflies in the garden back home and these have been Large White, Small White, Green Veined White, Holly Blue, Speckled Wood, Small Tortoiseshell, Painted Lady, Peacock and Red Admiral.  Also, on a rather damp and dull day last week I counted numbers of Willow Warblers moving through the hedges at the bottom of the garden.

Painted Lady Butterfly 

Speckled Wood Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly 

Wall Brown Butterfly 

Sml White Butterfly

Once in the hide and looking towards the sun I soon picked up the head and bill of the Great White Egret at distance and mostly hidden from view in the tall grasses and reeds.  We’d been advised that we would get a better view from the open hide down the road and having had a bite to eat we did get a good sighting from that point as the Great White Egret had moved into the open.  We saw our first Curlew Sandpipers of the day at the pools too along with a long distant sighting of Little Owl seen more closely later.

Great White Egret 

Little Owl

With time at a premium we skipped a visit to Amble, but instead returned to Cresswell Pond.  As we approached the pond a Common Snipe lifted from the area that the lone Little Egret had been feeding.  As flocks of Lapwing, Curlew and Redshank began to fly in we picked up a lone Golden Plover which was losing summer plumage, Dunlin, Black-tailed Godwit and at the end of the spit two more Curlew Sandpipers.  As always there was a nice atmosphere as the shower of rain passed over.  There had been a number of birders out today and we’d enjoyed the chat, but equally now enjoyed the peace and quiet of the hide which we had to ourselves in a great part of Northumberland.

Druridge Pools


Saturday, 13 August 2016

Postcard from Finland and Norway...Twitch and Tundra

No one gets rich from sleeping
Sami proverb

Four of seven Little Stint feeding along with Dunlin (alpina ssp)

I'd just had lunch of reindeer venison and came out to find amazing light caused by sunlight through the breaking cloud, but difficult to catch a true image.
By now all tour participants felt enriched!

White-tailed Sea Eagle

White-tailed Sea Eagle

White-tailed Sea Eagle
Our continuing watch along the Arctic coastline brought ever more sightings including regular White-tailed Sea Eagles and Rough Legged Buzzards.  Our final two nights on the Varanger Peninsular were to be spent at a more northerly point at the Polar Hotel, Batsfjord, but before heading in that direction we were to experience what can only be termed an Arctic twitch.  There was a White –winged Scoter in the area and we were off to see it.  I was told it was a male of the sub-species Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri from Eastern Siberia.  Who’s this guy Stejneger I wondered?  Well now, having read Audubon to Xantus, The lives of those Commemorated in North American Bird Names by B and R Mearns (one of my best reads this year now that I have finally got round to reading it fully), I find that he was quite a significant character and I’m now after getting my hands on his biography of Georg Steller.  I’ll be writing a blog about Stejneger in the future, such is my interest in the naming of bird species.  Getting back to the actual White-winged Scoter I can say we did find it quite easily, although our initial sighting was a poor one as the bird was seen against a dark background on the shore line.  Initial disappointment soon evaporated with further excellent and close views of the bird being obtained.  Through the scope the head shape and bill colouring (significant pointers for telling the two sub-species apart) were clearly seen.  I’ve seen the other sub-species in British Columbia and now await the expected split.  I did wonder why we were alone and why we weren’t surrounded by excited Nordic twitchers, then I found out that the bird had been around some time.  An excellent sighting and a bird which is almost creeping into my top ten rated bird species of the trip.  A Bluethroat appeared as we were watching the sea.

White-winged Scoter.  Heavily cropped but I believe still showing ID markers outlined in Collins Bird Guide indicating stejnegeri ssp
On arrival at Batsfjord I found it rather bleak, but I soon warmed to the place and the Polar Hotel was warm and comfortable.  If bleak in June I wondered what it would be like in winter.  Well I may find out as Sam and I have thoughts about a return.  There was a Russian boat in the harbour and we found another Glaucous Gull here too.  Our exploration of the surrounding high fell/mountain and tundra area was yet another highlight of the trip.  My minds playing tricks, but I think it was here that we found a group of three Golden Eagles above our heads and then later a single Golden Eagle.  The lakes held species such as Black-throated Diver, Red-throated Diver (good to see on a background of snow), Long-tailed Duck, Pintail and Scaup et al.  I have to say at this point Nordic chocolate is wonderful and can probably be thanked for helping us stay warm, along with Dick’s constant supply of bananas.  I tasted reindeer/venison on one occasion, but the thought of eating whale steak was a step too far and all of our group members ensured a change was made in the menu.

Golden Eagle

Rough Legged Buzzard 

Long Tailed Duck
I had my closest ever encounter with Ruff but sadly stuck in the back of the van at the time I could only photograph them through glass.  Yes, it could get frustrating at times.  I had much better opportunities with Snow Buntings actually seen on the snow and with snow in the background.  Lapland Bunting and Shore Lark were also seen again.  Ptarmigan showed really well, at times in pairs, and on one occasion flew across the road in front of the van.  Willow Grouse were seen again but on this occasion far more distantly.  Dotterel were seen again, but this time not well enough for photographs.  A lone Wood Sandpiper showed wonderfully and Whimbrel was also seen well.



Wood Sandpiper

One species which seemed to elude me was Arctic Redpoll, but I eventually did have a sighting.  I have to admit that the sub species of Redpoll still present me with difficulty of identification.  The difference between Arctic Redpoll and the other species of Redpoll was first noticed by Carl Peter Holböll, a Danish zoologist associated very much with Greenland.  A description of Arctic Redpoll appeared in the 1840s and the bird was named after J W Hornemann, a Director of the Botanical Gardens, Copenhagen.

Snow Bunting with snow


Sam photographing birds in the snow.

  The mammal list had continued to grow and over a few days we had sightings of Red Fox, Mountain Hare, Otter, Common Seal, Grey Seal and Harbour Porpoise.  During a discussion that Sam and I had with fellow guests we heard that they had seen two Humpback Whales in the area, but sadly they were not recorded by us.

June snow on the Varanger tundra

Apart from Sam and I, the group had not found Twite, but eventually success came and we all had good close sightings.  Despite some hard work Ring Ouzel also proved difficult to find.  Eventually calls were picked up and later two male Ring Ouzels were recorded.  Gyr Falcon and Peregrine Falcon were also seen again.  We also had more practice in identifying geese species.  Tundra Bean Geese (or were they taiga? :-)) along with Pink Foot Geese, were seen as was another Glaucous Gull.

Pine Grosbeak female

Pine Grosbeak male

I was really enjoying being in such habitat but our time on the Varanger Peninsular was drawing to a close and we were now to head back to Ivalo, Finland for an overnight stay before catching our flight to Helsinki in the morning and for Sam and I our onward flight to Heathrow and then to Newcastle (on what turned out to be a very relaxing flight back to Northeast England as the sun set).  We didn’t leave Varanger before on one occasion recording thirty-one individual sightings of White-tailed Sea Eagles during one day.  Thanks for the count Ken.  Apparently far from a trip record.  Our journey back to Ivalo included a stop off for more sightings of Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit and Brambling.

Siberian Tit 


 During our final evening Dick christened the group the banana group such was the number of bananas we had eaten.  We found that we had covered 3,100 kilometres in the vans during the two week tour, so the bananas and the chocolate were both needed (note to self…check to see if the chocolate is available on Amazon).  My personal count of bird species seen on the trip was 192 with 19 of them being lifers for me.  Bird of the trip?  Well I think it has to be Great Grey Owl.  I’ll get a list put on my blog at some point for anyone interested.  My expectations of the trip had been high, but having had a long time now to reflect upon it I can honestly say that even those high expectations were well and truly surpassed and this, with me having almost no run in with mosquitoes, which for someone like me who reacts badly to them showed how well the tour had been timed.

Tana, Norway
I’d like to thank Killian and Dick for their leadership.  Both of them being top blokes, each with a good sense of humour, and it felt as though we were out birding with mates.  Long days in the field always felt relaxed. The individual participants all added to the positive feel of the group and we had many laughs, so my thanks also go to Joyce, Doug, Chuck, Lillian, Carolyn, Roy, Lesley, Ken, Terry, Liz, Nick, Robin and of course especially Sam.

Tana Cliffs, Norway
I’m two thirds of the way through the book about the Sámi peoples and will move on to the Lapland book next.  My local birding has been limited over recent weeks but I did get to see the Bonaparte’s Gull in Northumberland and of course had the visit to Coquet Island.

If you have stuck with the saga I hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.  It brought back some great memories.

Beaivi Sun God
Bieggalmimái Wind God
Ancient Sámi Gods

On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the poet's eye
You may find him
If you may find him
On a distant shore
By the wings of dreams
Through an open door
You may know him
If you may……………….
As a song in search of a voice that is silent
And the sun
God will make for your way
Lyrics Neil Diamond from the album Jonathan Livingston Seagull