a Part Two vignette: The Skylark Story

text by Don Roberson
photos by Don Roberson unless
otherwise indicated; all photos copyrighted
to the photographer indicated; all rights reserved
California's first (and still only) Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis was at the Hall Ranch on outer Pt. Reyes, Marin Co., in winter 1978-1979 (photo, right, by Al Ghiorso), and it returned for six consecutive years a seven year visit in all. Its full dates of known occurrence were
16 Dec 1978-19 Feb 1979,
 returning 27 Oct-1 Nov 1979,
 and 25 Oct 1980-21 Feb 1981,
 and 3 Nov 1981-3 Jan 1982,
 and 31 Oct 1982-29 Jan 1983,
 and 3-8 Nov 1983,
 and 27 Oct 1984-17 Feb 1985

Full details on its occurrence and identification were published by Morlan & Erickson (1983). It was certainly an individual from one of the Siberian subspecies, as opposed to the nominate race which has been introduced in Hawaii and on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (and has since died out). Another bird of one of these subspecies (probably A. a. pekinensis) was collected on Kure Atoll, Hawaii, in October 1963.

What is less well known is the true story of this bird's eventual identification. The "great mass hysteria" of 1978 has been repeated in birding's oral history over the decades until the actual story has been so distorted as to lose all sense of the truth. In May 1999, Joe Morlan posted as a 'quiz bird' this old skylark, and one respondent got the lark right, but told this story: "If my fading memory serves me correctly the bird originally appeared as an immature and the predominant argument came down to Lesser Short-toed Lark and Smith's Longspur. Most observers eliminated Skylark because the bird showed no real crest like the race that had been introduced on Vancouver Is. Finally serious consideration was given to other races of Eurasian Skylark. Again if my memory is correct the bird molted into adult plumage before leaving in the Spring and it became apparent that the bird was indeed a Eurasian Skylark. In the more modern era of improved field guides and reference materials such a struggle seems unimaginable but I remember the arguments raging for several months on this bird."

Don Roberson was quick to respond: "Just a note to comment not on Joe's brilliant quiz, but on 'oral history.' It is interesting how oral history develops in the birding world, and a good example is the California skylark story. [The previous commentator] recites some of what he recalls that he has heard about the story, and I've heard others 'tell' it. Yet the story that was heard, and others tell, is not anywhere close to what happened. I know. I was there."

So now here is the true story:

The Pt. Reyes skylark was found on 16 Dec 1978 on the Pt. Reyes Xmas count. Initially, it was reported as a potential Smith's Longspur. From our view now, some 20 years later, we lack the perspective to recognize that (1) nobody even considered skylark a potential vagrant to California while (2) Smith's Longspur was considered by most to about the single "most likely" species to next occur in the state (indeed, a poll of 5 top experts Binford, Dunn, Lehman, McCaskie, Stallcup published by Joe Jehl in 1980 in W. Birds 11: 103-110 considered it the unanimous choice for "most likely" next Calif. bird). So Skylark was never considered, to the best of my recollection, let alone any debate about the presence or absence of a crest! And the correct i.d. was made within a few days after the initial faux pas nothing about a spring molt changed anything...

After the initial find and tentative i.d., the bird was studied over the next few days by a host of state listers, including me (I have detailed field notes for 18 Dec 1978 on the "Smith's Longspur" a species I had never seen), and all agreed that the tentative initial i.d. was correct. There were numerous features of the bird that matched the literature descriptions of Smith's Longspur. But beware that style of i.d......

I quote my handwritten field notes (in part) for 20 Dec 1978: "Last night Laurie Binford called me to discuss the Smith's Longspur. He suggested it wasn't a longspur at all, but probably a lark, because (1) the white belly, (2) lack of white spot in ear coverts, (3) lack of wingbars, (4) streaked supercilium, (5) brown on central tail, and a number of other points [including bill shape]. I disagreed, arguing it must be a Smith's Longspur. However, when he suggested possible Lesser Short-toed Lark, and a check of field guides gave no indication that it wasn't one of them, I went out today again. He (Laurie) asked me not mention his doubts.

I arrived with Jon [Dunn], Terry [Clark], and Lee [Jones] Laurie was already there and had had good views. He took me aside and wrote on a piece of paper '100% lark.' And indeed, with use of a scope, it all because clear [to me].

After everyone there was satisfied with their life Smith's Longspur, about an hour later, Laurie got ready to leave and, with all gathered on scopes staring at the bird, said: 'I have an announcement to make. It's not a Smith's Longspur. It's not a longspur at all. It is a lark. I don't know which one you can figure that out but it is a lark.'

Of course, there was mass consternation and confusion. Already, 7 members of the Rarities Committee had identified it as a Smith's Longspur (Rich Stallcup, Dick Erickson, John Luther, Guy McCaskie, Jon Dunn, Mike Parmeter, Lee Jones) as had Joe Morlan, Jon Winter, Dave DeSante, Richard Webster, Susanne Luther, Donna Dittmann, Elizabeth Copper, Terry Clark, myself and about 50 others. Laurie would call it 'the greatest case of mass hysteria ever' and he was right."

Those are my exact notes written 21 years ago.* That is how the bird was initially re-identified. My notes go on for pages of more details about plumage, including this about that bird: "The bill is thin, flat, and pointed not conical shaped as a longspur... The eyestripe is buffy yellow (more white in front) and finely streaked.. The lower breast and belly are white.... The undertail coverts are white....." 

My notes continue: "Dunn, Jones, Clark, Dittmann, and I visited MVZ, U.C. Berkeley, after viewing the bird for several hours. There we easily eliminated Smith Longspur (by bill, buffy belly, wingbars, back pattern, ear coverts, and many lesser points).... Lesser Short-toed Larks are too small, have a shorter thicker bill (more like Trumpeter Finch), are much grayer, and unlike the bird in question. Most Skylark races seem larger and brown, but birds labeled Alauda arvensis quelparte, taken in Nov. in mid Korea, match to near perfection. #134882 is most perfect. The size is smaller than most skylarks, the bird is very buffy on the face & breast, and fits the above description. It [the Pt. Reyes bird] is clearly an eastern Asian Common Skylark."

The "mass hysteria" to which Laurie referred was contributed to by the fact no one seeing the Pt. Reyes bird had experience with Smith's Longspur and no one but Laurie (curator of birds at Cal. Academy at the time) had ready access to specimens. Plus there were our expectations at that time of what was possible (or even likely) and what was not.

My notes for 20 Dec 1978 conclude this way: "Important lesson: carefully identify a new species by one's own criteria and study, not by the opinions of others, no matter how famous or expert, IF they, too, lack the necessary experience."

* it was "21 years ago" when written for Joe's web site
in 1999; it is many more years ago now

Joe Morlan concluded the mystery bird summary by writing: "Don's chronology of the initial identification of the Point Reyes bird is accurate and very much worth reading. In fact, the reasons Don relates for why the bird was not a Smith's Longspur are excellent hints to solving the identity of both of these [current mystery] birds. The story is legendary, but the facts have never before been published. I was also seduced into the 'mass hysteria' and can add some additional background. Binford first came to doubt that the Point Reyes bird was a Smith's Longspur after checking the plumage descriptions and keys in Birds of North and Middle America by Robert Ridgway (1901). Ridgway's key distinguished the Smith's Longspur by "Abdomen buffy or ochraceous, like rest of under parts...." vs. "Abdomen white...." for the other longspurs. Ridgway was writing for museum curators who see specimens lying on their backs, so this difference would be obvious in the museum tray. In the field these birds crawl along low to the ground, making such differences more subtle. Yet, I believe the difference is fairly clear in these photographs and that was the point I wanted to make by juxtaposing them here."

As the bird lingered in winter 1978-79 and debate continued, the topic of whether the bird should be collected was raised. There were practical problems (i.e., the bird was on National Park Service property) and philosophical and moral debates, sometimes heated. In the end, the bird was left undisturbed but well photographed, and extensive research led to the conclusive identification paper (Morlan & Erickson 1983). My personal opinion is that while there are numerous good reasons to collect birds in the wild, many of them well summarized in Remsen (1995), the identification of individual vagrant birds is not among those reasons. This is especially true as long as other observers may wish to study the bird in the field, and while there are still important facts to be learned. In the case of this Skylark, we would have never learned that a vagrant Siberian skylark would return to California for seven consecutive winters had it been collected in its first year.

Literature cited:
Morlan, J., and Erickson, R. A.  1983.  A Eurasian Skylark at Point Reyes, California, with notes on skylark identification and systematics. West. Birds 14:113-126.

Remsen, J. V., Jr. 1995. The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation. Bird Conserv. International 5: 145-180.

IN 1965-1989

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All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.







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