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Birds at the Pole

The Birds of Chile and Adjacent Regions of Argentina, Bolivia and Peru

by A.W. Johnson, illustrated by J.D. Goodall
Platt Est. Gràficos S.A., Vol. II, 448 pp., $22.50

Birds of the Antarctic

by Edward Wilson, edited by Brian Roberts. with Wilson’s original illustrations
Humanities Press, 191 pp., $17.50

The publication in Argentina of the second volume of A. W. Johnson’s book on the birds of Chile brings to a conclusion a lifetime of field investigation. For the first time an authoritative work in the English language is made available to students of bird life in Chile and some adjacent territories. Mr. Johnson and his friend Mr. J. D. Goodall, who is responsible for the color plates and maps, have demonstrated what can be done by two amateur ornithologists and explorers who, while engaged in business in Chile, have devoted their spare moments to the study of the birds of their adopted country. Mr. Goodall, besides being a self-taught artist, is a highly successful egg collector, as is the author himself. Between them they have discovered and described for the first time the nests and eggs of more than 100 species of birds. Both volumes of the work are entirely new and in no sense a translation of an earlier work in Spanish.

Anyone having the barest knowledge of the country must be awed by such an achievement, for Chile has a bewildering variety of country, much of it difficult of access. The country can boast the longest continuous stretch of shoreline relative to land area of any continental country in the world. This strip of land, situated entirely on the western watershed of the Andes, extends for 2,600 miles and is nowhere wider than 200 miles, narrowing in places to 60 miles. It is bordered on the one side by 20,000-foot mountains and on the other by the sea. Between the coastal range of mountains overlooking the Pacific and the much higher Andes to the East lies “a ribbon-like longitudinal valley,” completely arid in the North, fertile and productive in the well-irrigated central provinces, forested and progressively wetter in the South. European visitors do not always realize that Chile extends right down to Cape Horn in Lat. 56° S., and that immediately to the North are situated—to quote from Mr. Johnson’s Introduction—“the maze of winding channels, inlets, fiords and narrows that characterize the raindrenched, storm-swept Fuegian region.” South of Cape Horn the tempestuous ocean, so dreaded by mariners, stretches to the Antarctic continent, a land graphically described in the second volume under review.

A traveler—particularly a naturalist—should aim to arrive in Chile by sea, preferably via the Panama Canal. The sea-bird life in the cold Humboldt current has often been described and need not be enlarged upon here. With a slice of luck it is possible while in one or another of the numerous harbors to see penguins, pelicans, condors, sea lions, and giant skates within the space of a few hours. If a cargo boat has been chosen, calling at the many small ports en route one can obtain with very little effort a wonderful idea of the numbers and variety of species which frequent these seas: petrels, shearwaters, albatrosses, boobies, cormorants, gulls, and terns. Peru, famous for its guano islands, when seen from a ship at sea gives the impression of appalling drought which is continued when Arica in northern Chile is eventually reached. To voyage from there to the Straits of Magellan, as the reviewer has done, via Punto Arenas, to the Atlantic Ocean (or, better still, for adventurous spirits, through the Beagle Channel) is a sea journey which no ornithologist will ever forget, but he must bear in mind that for nearly the whole of the journey he will be in Chilean waters.

During his many visits to this land, Mr. Johnson has traveled through every type of country in search of particular birds, and in the pages of these two volumes he has described his discoveries and made available a vast amount of absolutely new knowledge for the benefit of those who may follow in his footsteps.

It is no exaggeration to say that among the birds of Chile are some of the least-known and most interesting of any in the world. The finding of a lake in the Andes, across the Bolivian border, on which three species of flamingo were breeding at an altitude of 14,800 feet is perhaps the highlight of the author’s discoveries. One of these species, James’s flamingo, was almost a mythical bird, whose nesting place had remained completely unknown and whose habits had never before been studied by any living being. But Mr. Johnson has much more to tell us. The reviewer has found his account of the torrent duck of absorbing interest. This duck, which is confined to fast-flowing rivers and fair-sized streams of the Andean mountain chain, performs feats in the water which are almost unbelievable. Not only is he capable of swimming against the fastest currents, but he can and does dive, can remain stationary at will in the midst of raging torrents, or dive and swim close to the bottom.

No less surprising is the ease with which even very young torrent ducklings can swim against the fastest currents, seeming to crawl over the surface, one webbed foot after another striking the water in quick succession. As Mr. Johnson observes, one can only watch and marvel how the birds do it. For many years efforts were made to discover their nests and at last these efforts were crowned and a pair found breeding in an old Kingfisher’s hole in a rocky gorge. Mr. Johnson, while fully conversant with the methods employed by the Golden-eye and American wood-ducks in launching their ducklings into space to fall upon either water or soft ground, poses the question whether this method could be safely employed by the parents of a torrent duck whose nest he found 22 feet above jagged boulders and hard stones, or, in other known instances, when the drop was between 65 and 70 feet. He suggests that in such cases the infant ducklings may be aided in their descent in some way by the parents. This still remains to be proved.

It fell to Mr. Johnson to make the remarkable discovery that the Grey Gull, so familiar to the harbors of the Pacific coast, does not, as one might suspect, breed by the sad sea waves but, astonishingly, on nitrate desert twenty or more miles inland, laying its eggs on stony slopes, but yet is to be seen every day of the year on the desert coasts of Chile, Peru, and Southwest Ecuador going about its fishing and foraging in the manner of its more ordinary relatives. These are only some of the highlights in Mr. Johnson’s book.

Mr. Johnson has rightly eschewed political boundaries and, as he tells us in his Preface, while giving accurate scientific information for ornithologists interested particularly in Chilean avifauna he has included information of a more general nature for the use of field workers on South America generally, but especially those working in the western areas of Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. The most interesting part of the text to the general reader is contained in the sections in which the habits and especially the nidification of each bird is described, for very special attention is given to breeding habits. The Johnson collection of Chilean eggs, with meticulous data, now in the author’s possession in Santiago, should be acquired by a museum which specializes in oölogy. It is an exceedingly valuable as well as a unique collection, containing many eggs unavailable in any museum or private collector’s hands and all with full data.

It is very difficult to give a fair criticism of the color plates for which Mr. Goodall is entirely responsible. It must be stressed that his little pictures fall far short of what ornithologists have come to expect from experienced bird-artists. They are, in fact, amateurish to a degree, as might be expected from a good naturalist who has never had a lesson in his life! But they have the merit, so often lacking in the work of technically trained painters, of backgrounds which enable the reader to visualize, however crudely, the environment in which the birds may be expected to be found.

Mr. Johnson’s book deals with the birds of Chile from a little north of 20° S. to the maze of channels and islands immediately north of Cape Horn. From that parallel to the borders of the Antarctic Circle is but a comparatively short distance; many of the sea-birds are common to both areas, and it is fitting therefore that the two books, Birds of Chile, and Birds of the Antarctic, should be reviewed together. It is these Antarctic birds of which Dr. Wilson wrote and which are depicted in the many beautifully produced drawings in Birds of the Antarctic. The book is ably edited by Dr. Brian Roberts of the Polar Institute, Cambridge, England.

American readers of the present generation may need some introduction to the author-artist himself, for it is understandable that Captain Scott’s name should be better known in the US than the names of those who served under him in the endeavor to be the first Antarctic explorers to reach the South Pole. In Great Britain, Edward Wilson will forever be remembered as one of the five heroic explorers—Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates, and Seaman Evans—who reached the South Pole on January 17, 1912, only to discover that Amundsen had preceded them a month earlier: “The disappointment at the Pole”—to quote Brian Roberts, the editor of this volume—“was followed by the heartbreaking struggle back to the coast—eight hundred miles in appalling conditions, the deaths of Evans and Oates; the final camp in a prolonged blizzard when they were only eleven miles from the next depot of food and fuel. Their bodies were found by a search party in the following November. The last entry in Scott’s journal was made on March 29. Wilson had died peacefully in his sleeping bag. A great cairn of snow blocks was raised over them surmounted by a cross made from two skis.” The journey so described which ended in deepest tragedy was that of the South Polar Expedition in the Terra Nova 1910-12, of which Wilson was the Chief of the Scientific Staff as well as Medical Officer. It was his second important expedition to the Antarctic, for he had previously been selected at the age of twenty-eight to be Junior Surgeon and Zoologist on the Discovery, which, also under Captain Scott, sailed to the Antarctic.

The leader of the Discovery expedition could not have made a more fortunate choice—in the rare combination of medical and zoological knowledge, as well as artistic accomplishments, he was unique—but perhaps Wilson’s greatest contribution during both the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions was his extraordinary capacity to get on with his fellow men and to influence them to get on with one another.

It was mainly on the Discovery expedition that Wilson found the opportunity to execute the great number of bird sketches and watercolor paintings which for the first time have all been gathered together and are now published in the volume under review. Relatively few have been found from the last expedition. It is perhaps remarkable that so many years elapsed before an effort was made to assemble under one cover facsimiles of Wilson’s unique paintings and monochrome drawings of Antarctic scenes and birds. It is claimed that they are the first ever sketched or painted of the majority of these birds in their natural habitat. The result, as now presented in sixty pages of color and forty-two of monochrome in Birds of the Antarctic, has been well worth the trouble. Had Wilson lived he would himself have written and supervised the scientific reports of the Terra Nova expedition of 1910-12. For a variety of other reasons—death intervening on more than one occasion—it was not until 1930 that Percy Lowe and Norman Kinnear, the authors of the section on the Birds (Zoology Vol. IV, No. 5, pp. 103-193), completed their text and it was published by the Trustees of the British Museum.

Dr. Brian Roberts, himself an Antarctic veteran, served as Ornithologist on the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934-37 and has for many years been on the staff of the Scott Polar Research Institute. He had long had in mind bringing together under one cover the drawings and watercolor sketches of Antarctic scenes for which Edward Wilson was famed, but these had been widely scattered and considerable difficulty was experienced in finding them. The best are to be found reproduced in this book. For his text Dr. Roberts has drawn freely from the publications listed in the Bibliography (pp. 180-186) and from the manuscripts in the Polar Institute. Unless otherwise stated all the quotations are from Wilson’s own journals and letters.

In editing the rich material at his command, Dr. Roberts has dealt under separate headings with the Discovery expedition, 1901-04 and the Terra Nova expedition, 1910-12, with a brief account of the work on the Grouse Disease Enquiry 1905-10 which Dr. Wilson undertook when at home in the interval between the two expeditions. He has included an interesting chapter, “Wilson as an Artist,” in which we have an appreciation of the artist’s work and a summary of Wilson’s views on technique. Wilson’s main method was to make pencil drawings in as much detail as the temperature would allow and to scribble over a sort of artist’s shorthand. He used very few colors. Every topic, Wilson emphasized, required a different method of treatment: “No coarse methods will reproduce snow, ice or distant mountains, all these take time.” There is much else in this chapter to help an artist intending to visit these inhospitable latitudes. Of Wilson’s drawings and paintings, Dr. Roberts observes, “The panoramic sketches of mountain scenery, especially, are a model of lucid recording never surpassed in the annals of polar explorations. His water colours were the first to convey an accurate idea of the beauty and subtlety of Antarctic colours….” That Dr. Roberts is not praising too extravagantly can be attested by anyone who has seen the original watercolors in the Polar Institute at Cambridge University, or the selection on the walls of the Royal Geographical Society in Kensington Gore, London. It is fortunate that some can be seen in Birds of the Antarctic.

Wilson is recognized by ornithologists as having been a master painter of birds in flight, and anyone who has seen the albatrosses, mollymauks, shearwaters, and petrels from the deck of a steamer, as this reviewer has done recently off the coast of Southern Chile and in the Magellan Straits, can but marvel at the wonderful results which Wilson achieved with his sea-bird studies. These colored sketches have been beautifully reproduced in the ninety-five pages devoted to them. There are also copious notes on the illustrations. The editor has thought fit to include the accounts which Wilson wrote in his own diary describing visits to South Trinidad, Macquarie Island, and the Aukland Islands. Finally, there is “The Winter Journey to Cape Crozier” with Cherry Garrard and Bowers which has been described by the former in The Worst Journey in the World.

Reading Wilson’s diary of the journey to Cape Crozier, an ordinary mortal must wonder that anyone could survive such hardships as were experienced between June 27 and August 1, 1911—a period of thirty-six days of unremitting toil and incredible endurance. It is an amazing story, told with the simplicity of a great explorer who never makes much of his own heroic part. Brian Roberts has done splendid work in arranging all his material, and in presenting it to the public in this incomparable way. Dr. Wilson himself would have thoroughly approved. Half the royalties from the sale of this book will be used to provide Wilson Memorial Grants to help young men and women to undertake field-work in polar regions, the remainder accruing to the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.

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