Unfortunately, I awoke on my second day in Greenport in no fit state to do any biking. Call it a stomach virus, or just say I ate, drank, and was merry with too much verve – I suspect it was probably a bit of both. But anyway, birding was off the table.
So while Inimitable Todd went off to discover the Long Island wineries by bike, I walked around the quaint little Greenport downtown. I soon stumbled over the one thing to make me happy in a quaint little downtown, namely a quaint little used book store filled with stacks and stacks of idiosyncratically selected books. This one specialized, appropriately, in seafaring literature; I picked up a book about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes and an early edition of my homeboy William Beebe’s original account of his bathysphere explorations in Bermuda. But the most interesting volume I acquired, for the purposes of this blog, was an original 1888 copy of Names And Portraits Of Birds Which Interest Gunners, With Descriptions In Languages Understanded Of The People, by one Gurdon Trumbull.
The issue of bird-names is one which occupies every birder. The folk-process proposes, the ABA disposes. The Myrtle Warbler disappears and the prosaic Yellow-Rumped Warbler appears. The Northern Oriole is split, and the Baltimore Oriole emerges in glory. And birders return to the subject of bird names over, and over, and over again.
Trumbull comes at the subject from a different perspective, that of the “sportsman”; but the concern of sorting through a mass of idiosyncratic local names to figure out and communicate what the heck that was that just flew away is the same. Here is the American Woodcock as snipe, timberdoodle, mud hen, bog-sucker, shrups, mountain partridge, and hookumpake; and, of all confounding things, also as pewee. Each name is documented as to the locality it was found in, making an interesting reference for the folklorist. And, being a book for gunners, the birds are also rated by flavor. Apparently Ruddy Turnstones (aka sea dotterel, Hebridal sandpiper, horse-foot snipe) taste too much like whale oil to be palatable even to the destructively omnivorous nineteenth-century palate.
The descriptions, in common with most pre-Peterson works and in keeping with a reference for people who would shoot the bird and then inspect it in hand, are detail-focused to the exclusion of practicality; the entire plumage of the Northern Shoveler gets described before its bill is even mentioned. But it’s not like I’m going to cart a book from 1888 into the field with me anyway. It’s fascinating browsing, and an instructive look at a different era; and $20 is a small price to pay to know that on Long Island, the Common Merganser was once known as the weaser sheldrake.