19 December 2006

Art of the Field Guide Plate

I guess its that time of year...I have been under the weather for the last few days and haven't been able to muster a post.
I have been thinking for a while about the field guide plate as an art form. Not typically regarded as a form of natural history art worthy of it's own designation, the field guide plate is certainly ubiquitous, and recognizable. I have a real nostalgic connection with the first generation Golden Guides, with plates by Arthur Singer. This was my first field guide and it will always be a classic in my mind. If you have the chance though, check out the second generation, written and illustrated by James Coe a few years ago. Coe's plates in this reinvigoration of the Golden Guide are some of the best I have seen. Take a look at this Warbler plate. These plates combine spot-on species portraits, habitat characters and natural history elements seamlessly in attractive compositions. This type of plate combining birds and their habitat, juxtaposing the understory with the middlestory, transitioning to a different habitat in a different quadrant of the plate has a really nice effect. Contrast this with a more prototypical plate by Larry McQueen. The second plate here is one of McQueen's efforts for the forthcoming Birds of Peru. Just a hint of habitat shown on the perches with more birds per plate are the biggest differences. Look closely at the variability of perch angles, supremely accurate posture representation and interesting depictions of differing, yet diagnostic facial guises. McQueen is truly one of the best painters working today, and I can't wait for a chance to be able to study all of the plates in Birds of Peru when it comes off the presses.

15 December 2006

Fuertes - Elliot Coues, the early mentor

After Fuertes had won the attentions of Elliot Coues, one of the premier ornithologists of the late 1800's, he received a showering of inquiries from the rest of the community. Impressed with Fuertes's paintings, Coues had showcased Fuertes work at the AOU in 1895. He told him in a letter, "I brought your name prominently before the American Ornithologist's Union by exhibiting about fifty of your best paintings and talking about them". This lead to one of the best early opportunities for Fuertes from Walter Adams Johnson who had recently launched a new ornithological magazine called "The Osprey". Fuertes was first published there, on the cover in 1897. Here is the cover with a Fuertes's grayscale painting of Eastern Screech Owl.

The attention received here and interest in his talents, while still such a young man, undoubtedly did wonders for establishing Fuertes as a sought after artist amongst the ornithologists of the day. Soon Fuertes's talents would win him bigger, higher priority jobs, all this while still a busy undergraduate at Cornell.

13 December 2006

Horsfall Prints from Chapman's Birdlore - Continued

As promised, here is the same plate as published in Birdlore in ~1904 and later in Chapman's Warblers of North America.

When I realized there was a discrepancy between the Fuertes plates and Horsfall's, I shifted my interests squarely onto the 4 Fuertes originals. I dug a bit more into Horsfall and his career, learning a bit about his life in this 'Biography' . I had suspicions that the auction house was indeed aware of the fact that these paintings were actually not painted by Fuertes. Selfishly though I focused my attentions on the auction for the plates I was most interested in.
As I wrote in an earlier post 'scroll down from here' , on the day of the auction, luck was not on my side and all of the plates that I bid on crept out of my price range (Bidding via telephone was a real thrill though!). Afterwards, after I actually heard the auctioneer attributing the Horsfall plates to Fuertes, I felt I had to pass on what I knew. I sent them a letter reading...

I participated in the auction of several original bird paintings a few weeks ago. Since then, I have confirmed my suspicions about some of the pieces that were up for auction. All lots 155, 156, 157, 168, 169, 170 were published originally in 1903 in a series of articles in the early Audubon Society publication Birdlore, and then again in a book by Frank M. Chapman called 'The Warblers of North America' in 1907. Two artists contributed paintings for both of these publications, Fuertes of course, but also an artist named Bruce Horsfall. Lots 157, 168 & 169 appear to me to have been painted by Bruce Horsfall, not L. A. Fuertes. Look for the BH monogram.
You may be aware of this already. If so, please disregard. I thought I would share a bit of my research into these works, especially in case you were not aware of this apparent discrepancy.

Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in any further details.

A while later, I received this very short, rather unsatisfying response...

Dear Mr. Clock,
Thank you for the information and participation in our auction.
I still am not sure what the gallery's next step was, but it certainly would have been nice to have been informed. Check and double check provenance is the take home message. I do know that AskArt.com currently lists the Horsfall's in the recently auctioned Fuertes paintings section that you have to pay dues to view.

Stay tuned in a later post for some new and interesting tidbits I unearthed while digging back into Birdlore Volumes 1-10 starting in 1899.

For Fun, here is the first Fuertes piece ever published in color in Birdlore, again derived from a grayscale plate, colorized during the printing process.

12 December 2006

Horsfall Prints from Chapman's 'Warblers' & Birdlore

Robert Bruce Horsfall a bird painter living and working in the late 1800's to the early-mid 1900's created a series of plates for Frank M. Chapman's Warbler guide. Here is one of this plates in it's original form. In the early 1900's printing capabiities didn't allow for full color work to be reproduced for print, at least not in mass production. Plates were painted in gray scale, and in some cases limited color was added later. Note the BH monogram in the lower left side of this plate. I came upon these Horsfall plates through a curious avenue. About 2 years ago, I happened upon an auction for an original Francis Jaques plate. I poked around a bit on the auction site, and then thought to double back to the catalog of the entire auction. Here I found the jackpot, a series of six plates of warblers, ALL attributed to Louis Agassiz Fuertes...ALL Original works. Excitedly, I inspected the photos, I fired off an email to the auction house to request higher-res scans and I dashed up to the library to try and track down where they might have been published. All the while I was a bit suspicious of the strange monogram on some of the plates. Why would Fuertes sign some of the plates and monogram others, especially so differently? At this point, I had lower-res images to scrutinize, but I knew that I could make out the first letter in the monogram as a B, not and L. At the library, my first thought for publication of the plates was Birdlore. Many of the early issues of Birdlore from the early 1900's were beautifully adorned with facing page plates by LAF. I flipped through the bound Birdlore pages and found the first very easily...in color surprisingly. In the next post, I will wrap this story up with the curious resolution of this apparent LAF and Horsfall confusion and in the meantime, I will grab a scan of one of the print-tinted Horsfall plates.
To be continued.

11 December 2006

J.G. Keulemans litho. in Salvin's Biologia Centrali-Americanum

I recently happened upon an amazing new digital resource including some fabulous bird plates from Salvin's 'Biologia Centrali-Americanum', published in the late 1800's and early 1900's in 52 volumes. Here is one of my favorite plates depicting the Pink-headed Wabler and Fan-tailed Warbler, two fascinating species I saw on my recent trip to Chiapas.
Check out the 'Biologia Centrali-Americanum' , a project digitized and hosted in conjunction with the Smihsonian Institute. Click on 'AVES, Vol 1-4', and on the next page click 'View all plates sequentially', to view the plates.

The Discovery of the Scarlet-banded Barbet

Dumb Luck:
The Discovery of the Scarlet-banded Barbet
by Dan Lane

The following is an account of the Louisiana State University (LSU) inventory expedition to the upper Río Cushabatay in the Cordillera Azul in southwestern Loreto department, Peru in July and August 1996. This was my first visit to South America, and my first time on an LSU expedition. The expedition was organized, funds were acquired by, and the real credit goes to Dr. John O’Neill. I just happened to be lucky enough to be the first person to encounter the new barbet… the story follows…

Expedition member Andy Kratter had been sending letters down with the specimens telling us about the third camp and its avifauna... (roughly paraphrased) "the forest on the camp ridge is quite interesting, but the avifauna is odd. Some of the expected birds such as the included Cyanocorax yncas [Green Jay] are here, whereas others are not. They will finish the trail to the peak of the Cerro tomorrow, and I will go with them..." John was excited by what was returning, as it represented more montane species than what we'd been seeing around Camp 2. He looked forward to the "shipment" from the following day.

Because of how we were spread out, now in three camps, we were unable to spare a nitrogen tank for the third camp to preserve fresh tissues of the birds. Instead, we had agreed that the best plan would be to send collected birds back daily with a Peruvian field hand who would then carry needed supplied (food, ammunition, etc.) back to the third camp the following day. Each shipment accompanied by a note describing the events of the day and the data for the specimens, among other things. Only one collecting ornithologist was at Camp 3 at any one time (until the final week), and we arranged to go up for shifts of one week.

Andy was only able to make it to the peak once in his five-day stay at Camp 3 (a strenuous hike of more than 2 kilometers from the peak). His description of the cloud forest and the montane birds ( Anisognathus somptuosus [Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager], Platycichla leucops [Pale-eyed Thrush], Phaethornis guy [Green Hermit], for example) were cause for great excitement among us "lowlanders" at Camp 2. It was decided that I would be the next ornithologist to ascend to third camp and tackle the peak. I wasn't sure I was ready, but I was looking forward to it in any case. I would be there a week - a week without bathing, a week of heavy hiking, a week of food with no variety but a week full of possibilities!.

My first full day at Camp 3 was a washout with rain all day, but I was able to learn the song of a Tangara tanager which, we were hopeful, was "the new bird of the trip." With the knowledge of this vocalization, we quickly realized how common the bird was in the area. The tanager is a form unknown in Peru, but we would find upon returning to the States that it was nothing more than Tangara varia [Dotted Tanager] of the Guianan Shield of northeastern South America, a range extension for this species of more than 1000 miles!

I climbed the peak my third day at Camp 3. Just at the transition zone on the Cerro (about 1200m) I encountered a lively mixed flock, collecting the trip's first Eubucco versicolor [Versicolored Barbet], and delighting in the many tanagers of various species foraging above my head. Above 1300m, where the true cloudforest began, the species makeup was rather distinct from that on the Camp 3 ridge or the lower ridges by Camp 2. Unfortunately, I had only about three to four hours to explore this strange habitat before having to return to camp.

Two days later (after a day spent on the camp ridge recovering from the hike to the peak), on July 15, I returned to the cloudforest. It was considerably cooler and overcast, the weather apparently not able to make up its mind what to do. I made sure to bring raingear, but was leery of the conditions just the same. The cool temperature, occasional drizzle, and cloudcover seemed to prolong bird activity and I encountered an active mixed flock in the stunted mossy growth of the cloudforest. I turned on the tape recorder while I observed the members of the flock. There was a lot of movement, and it was difficult to remain on a single bird for long, but within a few minutes, I had seen or heard species such as Leptopogon superciliaris [Slaty-capped Flycatcher], Basileuterus tristriatus [Three-striped Warbler], Tityra semifasciata [Masked Tityra], Piranga leucoptera [White-winged Tanager], and Syndactyla subalaris [Lineated Foliage-gleaner], among others. In the middle of the confusion, I caught a glimpse of a bird, or rather, its crown and cheek, but no more. Thinking "hmmmm, what's that?" I noted a red crown, white superciliary, and dark cheek patch. The only thing those marks fit, given what was expected at the locality, was Veniliornis dignus [Yellow-vented Woodpecker], so I decided that's what it must have been. I stopped the tape to identify the voices I had just recorded, and named the other species I had seen in the flock. My attention was grabbed again when a chase broke out between two male Piranga leucoptera [White-winged Tanagers]. I switched the recorder back on. As I taped their chase notes, another bird passed through my field of view and perched in the open right in front of me and proceeded to give some Tityra-like grunting notes. With my right hand, I turned my microphone on the bird as I raised my binoculars with my left.

My jaw dropped. It was the bird I had called Veniliornis dignus just a minute before, but clearly it was not a woodpecker. It was a barbet....but one that wasn't illustrated in either the Birds of Colombia or the barbet plate by Larry McQueen for the uncompleted Birds of Peru book (we brought copies of the plates of the latter to "field test" them). I spoke while keeping the mic on the bird, and was amazed to hear how calm my voice seemed "The bird I am looking at now is a new species of barbet..." I started to describe the bird. It was breath-taking: in addition to the afore-mentioned head pattern, the barbet had a white throat bordered with a bold red belt and golden-yellow underparts becoming orangy on the flanks. The back was mostly black with an irregular series of spots of red, then gold, then white, running from the nape to the rump. It had to be a Capito barbet, and somewhat resembled one I remember seeing in the Birds of Colombia. But Peru only has two species of Capito , and we'd already encountered both! This had to be new!

The bird was joined by a second, identical in plumage, and both flew over my head and perched in a tree which was out of reach. I was awestruck and a little disappointed that they were gone. Then one flew back and landed right above me. And then I had it in my hands! Excitedly, I called to Manuel Sanchez, who was just coming up the trail. "Don Manuel, if you see anything that looks like this, COLLECT IT!! It's a new species!" Within two hours, Manuel had acquired two more, and before leaving the cloudforest, I shot a fourth.

I sent the specimens back to John and the others with a note stating in big letters "DO NOT OPEN THIS TUPPERWARE UNTIL YOU HAVE READ THIS!!" The letter attempted to set the scene and break the news gently. I was excited to find, two days later when I returned to Camp 2, that it was indeed a new species.

In the month to follow, a total of thirteen barbet specimens were acquired... mostly by Manuel Sanchez. Andy and I made arrangements to spend a night in a makeshift campsite on the peak and were able to take behavioral notes, get more recordings, and photograph living barbets. Even after we ceased collecting them, the barbet seemed to be quite numerous in the cloudforest, for up to 8 could be seen daily from the relatively small area accessible from the footpath (the undergrowth and lay of the forest preventing much bush whacking).

The main questions that still perplex us are how large is the population of this bird and how widespread are they? The Cerro is not particularly near any other mountains of comparative height, the next nearest peak over 1200m is more than 10 km to the north, and a larger range (disjunct from the Andes) is 40+ km to the west. Do the barbets get that far? In 2000, O’Neill again organized an LSU expedition to the larger range of the Cordillera Azul with finding another population of the barbets one of the main objectives. We spent two months at that site, ascending to 1700 m elevation, but we didn't encounter the barbet. However, we never could reach the kind of tall cloudforest where the barbet was first found so perhaps we were simply in the wrong place.

I am happy to report that Barry Walker, of Manu Expediciones, and some friends returned to the barbet peak in 2002 and found the bird to be very common there. They acquired more tape recordings and video of the species, adding to the store of knowledge on this new and exciting species. In 2000, the barbet was formally described in the Auk (the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union) having been named the Scarlet-banded Barbet (Capito wallacei)

A Note on Collecting - Collecting figures heavily in this piece and I have made no attempt to soften the reality of a typical South American inventorying expedition. This locality had never been studied by biologists ( The cloudforest on top of the peak on which we discovered the barbet may not have been visited by any humans ever!), so the likelihood of new bird species was good, but without specimens, one would never know! Many species and subspecies are by far more cryptic than our barbet (which, by the way, was not the only new taxon [=a named taxonomic category] we discovered; the others will take more work to verify and probably aren't as exciting), and only by comparing specimens can one confirm their existence.

Specimens provide more than skins for museum collections; the catalogs of vertebrate life on earth. They provide as well information on diet, age, sex, plumage molt cycle, and soft-part colors (for artists), elements not easily assessed without collecting. It would take perhaps fifty hours of intense fieldwork to obtain the same dietary information as the stomach contents of five specimens! Frozen tissues are saved and enable later taxonomic work in the laboratory as well as provide the raw material for toxicological and other environmental studies. Unless there is a vanishingly small number of individuals of a species left in the world, an extremly unlikley event in undisturbed forest, collecting even a moderate series of specimens has little effect on the overall (or even local) population of a species.. In the case of the birds we collected, we determined that, as expected, there was a healthy population of individuals still present after we ceased collecting. Science still needs (and always will need) collections in order to help determine how ecological communities work and, in the end, to save them.

07 December 2006

Scarlet-banded Barbet through the eyes of 3

A while back, I received the new Victor Emanuel Nature Tours catalog in my mailbox. Every year I enjoy getting this piece of mail, not because I am keenly interested in going on a tour, mostly because it is so often emblazoned with a beautiful new painting by Larry McQueen on the cover. This year it was a particularly beautiful piece. Scarlet-banded Barbets, discovered on an LSU expedition in northern Peru just a few years ago, a fantastic bird from a fabulous part of the world and existing is perhaps the most beautiful habitat to behold...montane cloundforest. Seeing this painting and admiring it, I immediately also saw an opportunity for a great comparison. I'll get to that next, for now, take a look at this great McQueen piece. I wish the scan came out better, it unfortunately does not do the color justice. but it is the best I can do right now. Incidentally, this painting will also appear on the cover of the new 'Birds of Peru', the forthcoming field guide, started years and years ago by Ted Parker, and marshalled on towards publicatication by his friends and colleagues, Tom Schulenberg and John P. O'Neill. I have heard that the book will be out very soon, (field guide first, plates and maps, detailed species descriptions to be published later in a second volume).

When I saw the McQueen painting and had this idea for a comparison, I tracked down a clipping from Audubon magazine from the late 90's when the Barbet was discovered. John O'Neill has coordinated field expeditions for LSU for decades and is renowned for his ability to pick little known, potentially ornithologically rich patches of the globe for investigation. This skill has helped O'Neill discover and or describe a whopping 13 species of birds new to science in the past 40 years. The most recent, 13th discovery was on the 1996 LSU Northern Peru expedition. In this Audubon magazine description of the expeditions events and successes, O'Neill painted new species number 13, the Scarlet-banded Barbet.

The third painting in this comparison was published on the cover of the Auk in 1997 as a frontispiece in the Scarlet-banded Barbet description. Dan Lane, an artist/ornithologist from LSU was a member of the 96 expedition and was the first to encounter this new species. Here is Dan's painting from the Auk. In a later post, I will reprint a great account that Dan wrote of his discovery.