Gull F2Z in Rockland (Photos by Don Reimer)
Gull F2Z in Rockland (Photos by Don Reimer)
As I cruise the wave of modern information technology, I have little doubt that we inhabit the Information Age. According to Buckminster Fuller, who created the “Knowledge Doubling Curve,” up until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By the end of World War II, knowledge doubled every 25 years. And although different types of knowledge have different rates of growth, nanotechnology knowledge doubles every two years and clinical knowledge every 18 months. This phenomenon will increase exponentially throughout the future.

We might ask whether specific knowledge of birds has paralleled this frenetic pace. In a number of ways, the answer is yes. DNA blood sampling has defined increasingly precise genetic relationships within families of birds, reshaping prior understanding of diverse groups such as wood warblers. Computer analysis of bird song has added additional layers of knowledge. Scores of quality photographic and text field guides have sought to make bird identification a relatively straightforward process.

Other factors? Wing and leg banding procedures have deepened our comprehension of bird migration and distribution patterns. Tiny geo-locator devices are now attached to birds for up-to-the-minute tracking data across continents.  Nineteenth-century ornithologists believed that wintering swifts and swallows, instead of migrating to Mexico, Central and South America, hibernated in mud, reawakening to emerge each spring. This myth was strengthened by observations of the birds constructing mud nests in spring.

 


Since our current state of knowledge was built from past experiences and 20/20 hindsight, it is easy to neglect or underestimate the historic role of America’s pioneering ornithologists, who established a solid foundation for scientific bird study. Through his painting of birds and extensive field journals, John J. Audubon became an iconic figure in this regard. Reportedly he was an early practitioner of bird banding or “ringing.” The highly curious teenager fastened silver threads around the legs of several hatchling Eastern Phoebes and determined that the birds had indeed returned to the same neighborhood the following spring.

Banding returns can be quite informative. So far this summer, I’ve experienced two connections with banded birds that I’d photographed in the past. On July 16, I spotted my old familiar Ring-Billed Gull (F2Z) at the Rockland McDonald’s parking area. Banded in 2012 and freshly arrived from his island nesting colony of 48,000 pairs near Montreal, this returning male gull spends the late summer through early spring periods in Rockland. This past May he was recorded at the nesting colony. Apparently F2Z recognized my vehicle, as he leaned forward expectantly from a utility pole before gliding down for a closer inspection.

Meanwhile, a leg-tagged Semi-Palmated Sandpiper (JJ6) reappeared at Popham Beach on July 31. After being banded at Popham last August, the sandpiper continued south toward its wintering grounds, principally on the northern coast of South America for this species. JJ6 was likely returning from summer breeding activity on the tundra when a friend of mine spied him at Popham.

As I had stated, we owe a debt of appreciation to the founders and contributors to scientific bird knowledge in America. The Puffin Center in Rockland will host the movie “Audubon” at the Strand Theatre on Saturday, August 20. The 5:30 p.m. viewing will portray the interesting life and times of J.J. Audubon. The movie is free to the public, but a $10 donation is suggested. Maybe I’ll see you there.