Monday, January 12, 2009

Interview with Peter Vickery on Ptarmigan in Maine

I was messing around on the internet yesterday and came across the 1905 Journal of the Maine Ornithological Society.  It's pretty interesting reading, both because it's nice to see that people a century ago were just as passionate about birds as we are, and to compare what birds were being seen then and now (check out the writer on page 11 excitedly relating the increasing numbers of Mallards).  

I paused, though, at a sentence on page 3 discussing the taxidermy collection of Mr. Manly Hardy: "Among the Maine novelties is the specimen of Willow Ptarmigan taken at Kenduskeag..."

Iiiiinteresting, I thought.  I had thought before about ptarmigan in Maine and wondered whether they could, or had ever, been established in the state.  Researching a bit more, I discovered a quote from none other than John J. Audubon claiming that Theodore Lincoln of Dennisville (the father of Thomas Lincoln, for whom the Lincoln's Sparrow is named) had shot several ptarmigan in the state and knew where to find others.  

With my interest rolling, I sent a message out to my local listserve looking for other information on ptarmigans in the state.  Luckily one of the first to respond was Peter Vickery, one of Maine's most respected birders and, according to another respondent "the source of all things historical."  Peter did indeed know of a handful of Maine ptarmigan records, and agreed to take time away from working on a book of Maine Birds to talk with me about them.

Birdist: Maine ptarmigans are mentioned by John J. Audubon as having been taken by Theodore Lincoln of Dennisville, ME and in the 1905 Journal of the Maine Ornithological Society as having been found in Kenduskeag.  Are there other old records of ptarmigan being found in the state? What do you think of the authenticity of these early reports?

Peter Vickery: Both Knight (Birds of Maine, 1908) and Palmer (Maine Birds, 1949) list the Kenduskeag bird.   This record was published in the AUK 9:300.

Audubon's account has been discredited, as it true for many of his distributional remarks.

This is part of the Willow Ptarmigan account from our book:

"Palmer (1949) noted that Audubon (1834:528) mentioned that Willow ptarmigan occurred in Maine.  'No doubt this report, generally believed to be erroneous, furnished the basis for inclusion of this bird in the Maine fauna (Palmer 1949:171).' ... Audubon apparently stated that Theodore Lincoln, of Dennysville, Washington County had shot as many as seven birds in one day.  Everett Smith (1882-83:224) communicated with Lincoln on this subject and stated that Lincoln 'informed me that he could not remember ever finding the ptarmigan in Maine, and that ‘probably Mr. Audubon referred to those shot further North.  Mr. Lincoln speaks of the Canada Grouse [Spruce Grouse], as ‘spotted grouse,’ and it is my belief that the incident of the seven birds shot in one day near Dennysville, Me. related by Mr. Audubon, was probably referable to the ‘spotted’ or Canada Grouse.’ (Palmer 1949:171-172)”

The other records include: Sherman Mills in 1951, Harpswell, 1977, Brooks in 1990, Great Chebeague Island, 2000.

Birdist: Here is Audubon's quote about the Maine ptarmigan:
Although I have not seen this beautiful bird within the limits of the United States, I feel assured that it exists in the State of Maine, as well as in the northern districts bordering on the great lakes.  THEODORE LINCOLN, Esq., of Dennisville in Maine, shot seven one day, not many miles from that village; and the hunter who guided me to the breeding-grounds of the Canada Grouse assured me that he also knew where the "Red-necked Partridge" was to be found.  The places which he described as frequented by them, seemed to bear as near a resemblance to those in which I found the species in Labrador and Newfoundland, as the difference of latitude and vegetation could admit.
If we rule out Lincoln's birds as mistaken Spruce Grouse, we still have the "hunter" who, although providing nothing except hearsay, makes a clear distinction between Canada [Spruce] Grouse and "Red-necked Partridge."  Have you come across anything about this "hunter" in your research or know anything more about this story?

Peter Vickery: As I understand the situation, Audubon attributed the shooting to Lincoln, who specifically stated that he didn't shoot ptarmigan in Maine. Seems very clear to me.

Also, how likely is it that anyone would shoot 7 ptarmigan in a day in Maine, even in the 19th Century? That's inconceivable.

Birdist: I see, so it's accepted that Lincoln and "the hunter" are the same person.  It seems to me that from that passage Audubon could be referring to two different people, but I will certainly defer to those who have done a more thorough study of Audubon's work that I have.

Where do you think these birds came from?

Peter Vickery: I doubt that ptarmigan bred in Maine in recent post-glacial times but that they might well have been breeding in Maine as the glaciers receded, perhaps 5 - 8 K years ago.  But that's just supposition.

It seems clear that these birds are misdirected migrants.  Interior populations of ptarmigan make substantial migrations south in late fall, traveling hundreds of miles.   Most Maine records occur in spring when these birds should be migrating north.  No one is clear why some of these birds fly in the wrong direction, but it seems to be the case with many species of birds, including ptarmigan.

I would add that there is a single record of Willow Ptarmigan for Massachusetts.  This record was initially dismissed as a captive bird but is now generally viewed as a legitimate vagrant.

Birdist: I'm intrigued by the Great Chebeague bird from 2000.  Were you one of the lucky few to see this bird?  Do you believe it was of wild origin?  Based on your "reverse migration" idea for Maine ptarmigan records, do you think this bird came to Casco Bay after mistakenly flying too far south (much like fall migrants on Cousin's Island)?

[Note: Here's a website with pictures of the Chebeague ptarmigan and some information on other Maine sightings.]

Peter Vickery: Yes I did see the bird and have no doubt that it was a misguided vagrant.

The origin of the Great Chebeague ptarmigan was fully consistent with the reverse migration pattern, so that's what I think happened with this bird. ø


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