I was thinking about the seasons and how we look out for our first Yellow-billed Kite every year around Spring. We also love hearing the first Piet-My-Vrou and other cuckoo calls.
Richard Lydekker (1849 – 1915) was an English naturalist, geologist and writer of numerous books on natural history. In fact, about thirty books in thirty years, some of them multi-volume tomes – up to six volumes!
Lydekker attracted amused public attention with a pair of letters to The Times in 1913. He wrote on 6 February that he had heard a cuckoo, contrary to Yarrell’sHistory of British Birds which doubted the bird arrived before April. Six days later on 12 February, he wrote again, confessing that “the note was uttered by a bricklayer’s labourer”.
We have all been caught out by a tape recording, a cellphone audio clip – and a mimic like our Natal Robin, so we feel for poor Lydekker over a century later!
After the mirth subsided, letters about the first cuckoo became a tradition every Spring in The Times.
When Aitch said ‘Come with me to Brasil’ in 1988 I shouted ‘Hell, yes!’ over my shoulder as I rushed off to a bookstore to buy a book on the birds of Brasil.
There wasn’t one. I asked everywhere and searched everywhere, but no luck. Then I asked Hardy Wilson, who reached up to one of the many shelves in the library in his lovely home in Hollander Crescent and brought down his only copy of Aves Brasileiras and said ‘You can use this.’ I think he said it was the only field guide to Brazilian birds that he knew of and that it was out of print. Something along those lines, anyway. Wow! Are you sure? I asked. ‘Sure. Go. Enjoy.’
In Rio de Janeiro we found another copy – a hardcover. When we got back I offered Hardy his choice of either, in case the soft cover had sentimental value, but he preferred the hardcover, so I still have Hardy’s soft cover book Aves Brasileiras.
Using it made us realise how lucky we were in South Africa to have Roberts and Newmans field guides. I thought the book was probably Brasil’s first, but today I found this post by Bob Montgomerie of the American Ornithological Society’s History of Ornithology site. That’s what reminded me of Hardy’s book and his generosity thirty years ago.
Bob Montgomerie: The first work of this genre (“Birds of – name of a country”) to be published was probably Georg Marcgraf’s section on birds, Qui agit de Avibus, in Piso’s Historia Naturalis Brasiliae published in 1648. Several other books about birds were published in the 16th and 17th centuries but this is the only one I could find that was specifically about the birds of a particular country or region, at least as indicated by the title. Marcgraf’s bird section is a masterpiece that was THE authority on South American birds for the next two centuries. Even the paintings are pretty good given the quality of bird art in books by his contemporaries, and each species gets a separate account. Unfortunately for most scientists today, Marcgraf’s work is in Latin and relatively inaccessible.
Well, Hardy’s book was in Portuguese, and relatively inaccessible to us! But without it we would have been lost.
I found a pic of Hardy on the History site with Jane Bedford and a chap dressed funny. Jane has appeared in one of my stories before, in another world, long ago.
Charles Darwin was born 210 years ago today. He died aged 73 in 1882. One of the single most profound ideas ever to enter a human brain seeped into his around 1836 and stewed and bubbled there until in 1858 he was jolted into action and finally published his stunning insight.
No, NOT “the theory of evolution”! Evolution is not a theory, it’s an established scientific fact that happens around us all the time. Don’t listen to claptrap. Evolution is accepted and observed, and is the reason – just for one example – that we have a major problem with drug resistance. Germs evolve to be resistant to drugs. Daily.
No, the theory that evolution happens by natural selection; THAT’s the amazing thought that Darwin had. One hundred and sixty years later, despite the devious efforts of naysayers – and the earnest efforts of real scientists – all the evidence still points to Darwin’s idea being right. Discovery after discovery in the fields of biology, paleontology, geology, molecular biology, genetics, anthropology, and more – each one of which could potentially sabotage his theory – have instead reinforced it. The age of the earth, plate tectonics, fossils, common structures, the distribution of species, embryonic development, germ theory, DNA, etc. Each new discovery has been found to align with Darwin’s powerful theory – biological evolution by natural selection or “descent with modification,” the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation. His amazing insight, his ‘dangerous idea’, remains a good brief definition of the process to this day.
What Darwin discovered was that “all life is one”! An amazing thought. Who could ever have thought that one day when we became able to test the genes of plants and animals we’d discover that we shared some genes with chimps, yes – one of the reasons the bishop of London fought so hard against the idea when first announced in 1859 – but that we also share some of our genes with grass! NO-ONE would have predicted that. All life is one. Stunning.
As a student Darwin was a proper, normal person! He neglected his medical studies in Edinburgh, preferring to study natural history on interesting field trips, then when his wealthy medical doctor father sent him to Cambridge to study to become an Anglican parson, he preferred riding, shooting and beetle collecting! Only beer drinking seems to be missing from a well-balanced start in life.
Then he took a gap year – five years, actually – and traveled:
On his return from sailing around the world he threw himself into scientific work, experimentation, meticulous research and lots of thinking. But he couldn’t bring himself to publish his big insight. His wife Emma was very religious and they both were very aware of the stir his amazing insight would cause. After twenty years of this he was suddenly nudged into action when a younger man sent him a paper to publish which he felt was almost identical to his theory. He scrambled to action, and so it happened that his friends Lyell and Hooker arranged to have his and Alfred Russel Wallace’s papers read jointly to the Linnean Society on 1 July 1958. On the evening of 28 June, Darwin’s baby son died of scarlet fever after a week of severe illness, and he was too distraught to attend the presentation. Their joint paper On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection was read. What followed was . . nothing. Little attention was given to this announcement of their theory; the president of the Linnean Society made the now-notorious remark in May 1859 that the year 1858 “had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries.”
In 1859 he finally published his amazing book On The Origin Of Species, ‘one long argument’ for the idea, hatching in his head since 1837, of the ‘common descent’ of all life.
His theory is simply stated in the introduction: As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.
At the end of the book he concluded that: There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
A toast to an amazing man and his insight!
Evolution was already old in 1859: Contrary to popular opinion, neither the term nor the idea of biological evolution began with Charles Darwin and his 1859 paper, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Many scholars from the ancient Greek philosophers on had inferred that similar species were descended from a common ancestor. The word “evolution” was widely used in English for all sorts of progressions from simpler beginnings from 1647 on. The term Darwin most often used to refer to biological evolution was “descent with modification,” which remains a good brief definition of the process today.
Darwin proposed that evolution could be explained by the differential survival of organisms following their naturally occurring variation—a process he termed “natural selection.” Offspring of organisms differ from one another and from their parents in ways that are heritable – that is, they can pass on the differences genetically to their own offspring.
Yes, evolution is also a scientific theory, but not when used in a negative sense. If anyone says ‘it’s only a theory nya nya’, ignore them. If anyone says its a scientific theory matter-of-factly they’re right, but then those people will also immediately tell you it’s also a scientific fact. Read about that here.
Jerry Coyne wrote a lovely affirming letter to Charles Darwin on his 200th birthday, back in 2009. How Darwin would have loved reading it, and how it would have brought relief and peace of mind to a wonderful man who worried a lot!
There are about 6000 species of hoverfly. They disguise themselves as wasps but they’re harmless little buggers and they do a great deal of good pollinating and eating pests like aphids. They love flowers and nectar so they hang around lovely perfume-smelling things:
My cellphone pics and videos of the Khwai River hoverfly weren’t great so I didn’t post this until my ex-Saffer-turned-Kiwi, now in Aussie, mate Stephen Charles Reed sent a better picture of a Brisbane hoverfly.
They are amazing hoverers! They can hold dead still in mid-air and then flick to another spot in any direction, zip! just like that. They can do anything mid-air:
All this made me go looking and I found a new hero. Fredrik Sjöberg lives on Runmarö Island in Sweden and looks for hoverflies, butterflies, beetles and anything that else that might flit by. He wrote a wonderful book on hoverflies, life the universe and everything which his publishers thought might sell 1600 copies in five years. Well, he sold 30 000 and has since published it in numerous other countries! Then – I told you he’s my hero – he won the IgNobel Prize for Literature in 2016!!
IgNobel LITERATURE PRIZE [SWEDEN] — Fredrik Sjöberg, for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead. REFERENCE: The Fly Trap is the first volume of Fredrik Sjöberg’s autobiographical trilogy, En flugsamlares väg (“The Path of a Fly Collector”), and the first to be published in English. Pantheon Books, 2015, ISBN 978-1101870150.
We humans finally started to learn how to hover in 1907 when the French brothers Breguet flew the Gyroplane No.1 quadcopter about 0.61 m above ground for a minute. Hoverflies all around the world laughed at us.
Its gone wimpish! Actually Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge is still a wonderful, more affordable way to see the Okavango Delta and this post must be taken with a pinch of salt; My tongue is in my cheek;
This is classic “The Good Old Days Was Better” bulldust. As my friend Greg says, ‘The older we get the better we were.’
When WE went ca. 1990 we had to take our own food! But because there’s a 10kg limit on the Cessna 206’s and because one naturally has to take binoculars, a telescope, a tripod, a sleeping bag and books:
I exaggerate, these were Jessie’s books for her field guide course last year, but still: weight. So we took very little food. At Oddballs we bought their last potatoes and onions and then we pitched our tent. Not like these wimpish days when the tent is pitched for you on a wooden deck with shower en-suite!! We were like this:
Nowadays New Oddballs is soft and squishy:
Here’s Aitch in the Old Oddballs Palm Island Luxury Lodge – and the wimpish new arrangement!
Luckily, the rest is still the same! You head out on a mekoro with a guide who really knows his patch:
You pitch your own tent on an island without anyone else in sight:
And you enjoy true wilderness. When you get back, Oddball really does seem like a Palm Island Luxury Lodge:
There’s a bar, there’s ice and cold beer, gin and tonic. You can order a meal! And – NOWADAYS! – a double bed is made up for you, ya bleedin’ wimps!
I am a paid-up member of the Flat Paddle Society. Owner and boat-maker at Pope’s Canoe Centre, Owen Hemingway was alarmed that I even existed in the year 2016 and earnestly (more of ‘earnest’ later) explained to me how much more efficient a wing paddle is than a flat blade, demonstrating with a teaspoon under a flowing tap. It was remarkable. I could see clearly that the spoon shape exerts much more force on the water with less wasted energy.
The reason he was concerned for my well-being was I had bought a plastic boat from him, a lovely Detox, second-hand but like new. I now wanted him to make me a left feather flat-blade paddle and Owen assumed I wanted it for forward motion. He didn’t let me explain that I rely entirely on the current for forward motion and my paddle is only for balance and – occasionally – to roll back up into the sunlight again if I’ve flopped over.
This is why I never entered any sprint races. They’re held on flat water and if the wind had been against me I’d have drifted backwards at the gun.
** Ernest Hemingway – NOT **
Speaking of Hemingways, famous Ernest could write,
but Owen didn’t inherit any of his genes. My pleas for Umko stories always elicited an enthusiastic yes! but nothing forthcame. Only when I visited him in person did the excited stories and anecdotes, gossip and insider skinner as only a 30-times Umko paddler could know it, pour forth enthusiastically. But in writing? Not so much.
All of this reminds me I still haven’t fetched my left feather flat paddle from him.