From Holboell's Grebe (1912) to Common Gallinule (2012)

Thu, 01/10/2013 - 3:36pm

On December 26, 1912, Miss Elizabeth Dickens (age 35), in her first of 50 years of keeping a daily bird journal, recorded seeing: “Horned lark 35, Snowflake 50, Herring gull 10, Holboell’s grebe 1, Horned grebe 1, Red-breasted merganser 2.”

On December 26, 2012, a small but intrepid group of bird watchers went afield to see what they could see and recorded 52 species. Only two — Herring gull and Red-breasted merganser — overlapped with Elizabeth Dickens’ 1912 list.

In the intervening 100 years the island habitat and landscape has changed from open fields to shrubby cover. The severity of winter temperatures has moderated, and —thanks to Elizabeth Dickens’ example — the number of observers of the island’s landscape and fauna has increased.

Consider the species that Elizabeth Dickens saw. Horned lark, once a nearly ubiquitous winter bird in Dickens’ day, is rarely, if ever, seen on Block Island now. This is a bird of grassy dunes and open fields. Snowflake (a.k.a. Snow bunting), like the Horned lark, is an Arctic nester that moves to balmy New England’s barren fields and coastal dunes in winter. Snow buntings are a fleeting late fall migrant on Block Island these days, although small flocks can be detected here and there around the island in some years. Herring gulls and Red-breasted mergansers are common and numerous around the island’s shore. It appears that Herring gulls are even more abundant now than in Elizabeth Dickens’ day. Grebes are another story however. Only twice in the last 12 years (2005, 2007) has a Horned grebe been reported, and thrice (2004, 2006, 2011) a Pied-billed grebe. However, never have we encountered Holboell’s grebe — a regular sighting for Elizabeth Dickens.

Holboell’s* grebe — more commonly known today as Red-necked grebe — is a bird of the open water, where it can dive and swim with speed and deftness. However this aquatic specialist flounders on land, so when frigid temperatures seal the open water of inland lakes, and roiling coastal waves heave Red-necked grebes ashore, the birds stranded on solid surfaces nearly always face death. To see Red-necked grebe today we must attend to the coastline and peer seaward more frequently, as was likely the habit of Miss Dickens perched as she was at Southwest Point.

It has been a century since Miss Elizabeth Dickens started her journals, and the island’s shores have not bound her contributions and influences. The following passage is taken from the classic three volume "Birds of Massachusetts and other New England States," by Edward Howe Forbush, 1925. References to Elizabeth Dickens’ observations are found frequently in this work by Forbush, who relied on observations and accounts of like-minded amateur and professional observers throughout New England.

“...Holboell”s Grebe is usually the least common of the grebes, and stays mostly in wide waters where it can keep more than a gunshot from shore, but where no shooting is allowed, it becomes tame and unsuspicious. It may be seen off either rocky cliffs or sand shores, and often is common off isolated isles like Block Island or the headlands like Nahant, where it sometimes gathers in numbers.... Miss Elizabeth Dickens, of Block Island, Rhode Island, informs me that in some seasons hundreds of these birds die along the shores of that island. During severe storms some are driven in from the sea and die miserably in extreme cold weather when they find no open water in the ponds.” (Forbush, Vol. 1, page 6.)

In addition to the natural historians of her time Elizabeth Dickens has inspired a legion of observers and teachers and leaders on Block Island who have joined with her — in person and in spirit — to note the birds of Block Island and by association the nature of this place. (See the insert from E. Dickens 1961 December 26 journal entry, the last Christmas Count that she recorded. Note especially the participants.)

Christmas Count 1961

(The following is taken verbatim from E. D. Journal/1957-1961.)

Loon, Pied-bill grebe, Cormorant, Great-blue heron, Green heron, Bittern, Swan, Canada goose, Brant, Black duck, Greater scaup, Lesser scaup, Goldeneye, Red-breasted merganser, Marsh hawk, Sparrow hawk, Bobwhite, Pheasant, Woodcock, Snipe, Gr. Black-backed gull, Mourning dove, Herring gull, Barn owl, Kingfisher, Flicker, Downy woodpecker, Prairie horned lark, Blue jay, Crow, Black-capped chickadee, Red-breasted nuthatch, Winter wren, Brown thrasher, Robin, Hermit thrush, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Starling, Myrtle warbler, House sparrow, Meadowlark, Red-winged blackbird, Grackle, Cowbird, Cardinal, Dickcissel, Evening grosbeak, Towhee, Junco, Tree sparrow, White-throated sparrow, Fox sparrow, Song sparrow, Snow bunting. 54 species, 1756 total.

Ed Northrup, Arthur Rose, Irving Rose, John Lee, Eileen Lee, Cara Lee, Marcia Phelan, Blake Phelan, John Phillips, Stella Mitchell, Ed Blane, Edith Blane, Peter Blane, Michael Reilly, Peter Vann, David Lewis, Keith Lewis, Elizabeth Dickens, Merrill Slate. Compiled by Merrill Slate, [undecipherable word] by Ellen Ball.

Community Bird Census 2012

Weather: Sunny in the morning, cloudy by noon; wind NNE — NE 10-20 mph; temperature 32-38 F. Location: The following list is an amalgamation of birds seen at or between: Sachem Pond/Settlers Rock, Coast Guard Road from West Side Road to Cormorant Cove, Dunn’s Bridge to the Hog Pen, Spring Street pond to the Old Harbor, Andy’s Way, airport and surrounding area, West Beach at West Beach Road, Worden’s Pond to Cooneymus beach, Fresh Pond/Seneca Swamp, Old Mill Road (Mawhinney, Record, Peterson neighborhood), Beacon Hill Road, Dorry’s Cove Road and beach, Corn Neck Road, and Mill Tail Swamp Pond and feeders.

Participants: Nancy Greenaway, Susan Matheke, Don Mawhinney, Bruce Montgomery, Jon Peterson and family.

This year’s Community Bird Census was about average with 52 species. New this year (for the 12-year history of OVF organized CBC) were the White-breasted nuthatch and Common gallinule. A rare sighting for Block Island, Common gallinule has been seen often this fall at Cooneymus Pond.

Each year, the December 26 bird counts offer a chance to see something new or reacquaint with old acquaintances — maybe December 26, 2013, will add Red-necked grebe to our Elizabeth Dickens-inspired day of bird observations.


Red-throated Loon — 3

Common Loon — 34

Northern Gannet — 3

Double-cr. Cormorant — 66

Great-blue heron — 3

Great egret — 2

Canada Goose — 30

Mallard — 65

American Black Duck — 15

Gadwall — 9

Green-winged teal — 3

Ring-necked duck — 68

Common Goldeneye — 23

Bufflehead — 25

C. Eider — 13

Scaup sp. — 14

Black Scoter — 2

Ruddy duck — 220+

Hooded Merganser — 33

Red-breasted Merg. — 32

Sharp-shinned hawk

Northern Harrier — 3

Merlin — 1

Pheasant — 1

C. Gallinule - 1

American coot - 7

Black-bellied plover — 4

Dunlin — 16

Sanderling — 17

Gr. B-b Gull — 49+

Herring gull — 93++

Ring-billed Gull — 3

Mourning Dove — 56

Belted Kingfisher — 2

N. Flicker — 1

Downy Woodpecker — 3

Blue Jay — 5

American Crow — 128+

B-c chickadee — 16

White-breasted nuthatch —2

Red-breasted nuthatch — 1

Carolina Wren — 12

N. Mockingbird — 1

E. Starling — 204

Myrtle Warbler — 22

House Sparrow — 12

N. Cardinal — 13

House finch — 6

Purple finch — 1

A. Goldfinch — 10

White-throated sparrow—7

Song Sparrow — 8

Total Species: 52

Individuals: 1,394


Other notable sightings within the week: On Christmas day Chris Blane saw two Ruby-crowned kinglets, followed a few days later by a Wilson’s snipe; Joanne Warfel was delighted by a small flock of Eastern bluebirds in her yard; Barby and Doug Michel retrieved an American woodcock from a crow; and John Littlefield, Jr. reported a Barn owl on its usual Mansion Road haunt, and on New Year’s Day a soaring Red-tailed hawk over Trim’s Pond.


*Carl Peter Holbøll (born 31 December 1795 in Copenhagen — deceased 1856 in the North Atlantic) was an officer in the Danish Royal Navy, Greenland colonial officer and explorer of the Greenlandic fauna. Holbøll served as Royal Inspector of Colonies and Whaling in South Greenland (1825—1828), then Inspector of North Greenland (1828—1856). While in this post he became interested in natural history. His main contribution was to send large amounts of faunistic collections to the zoologists in Copenhagen. For example, professor Johannes Theodor Reinhardt described the North American form of the Red-necked Grebe and named it Podiceps holboellii (now Podiceps grisegena holboellii). After a visit to Denmark, he travelled back to Greenland on the brig Baldur, which went down on its way. All on board were lost.” — from Wikipedia