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mystery of the bachman's warbler

2003-06-02 - 11:45 a.m.

I just got my travel documents for our trip to Panama. Now I'm in a whirlwind of scheming and planning. I would love to pack so efficiently that we don't have any checked luggage whatsoever.

A beginning birder recently reported seeing a Bachman's Warbler in his yard elsewhere in Louisiana, a report he quickly retracted upon learning that the bird was extinct, explaining that what he actually saw was a quick glimpse of a bird with a yellow chest and what he perceived as a black "heart." I would guess that he saw a Hooded Warbler. The hazards of using an older bird guide...

The tale of the Bachman Warbler is a tragic one. Lowery* writes:

"It first became known in July 1833, when Dr. John Bachman shot two individuals and observed several more, all within a short distance of Charleston, South Carolina. He turned the specimens over to Audubon....Over 50 years passed before another individual of the species was seen, this time in Louisiana. Charles G. Galbraith, a professional plume collector, who was procuring feathers for the millinery trade, shot 38 of them in the springs of 1886, 1887, and 1988, and still others in 1891, all on dates between February 27 and March 20, and all in the vicinity of Mandeville on Lake Ponchartrain. His interest was primarily that of getting any kind of small, bright-colored bird that would be suitable for skinning and drying with wings spread and with the head turned back, ready for pinning on fashionable ladies' hats.... At about the same time, it was plentiful, at least in migration, in southern Florida (where on March 3, 1889, alone, 21 birds struck the lighthouse on Sombrero Key)....

"Since the time of Galbraith there have been fewer than a dozen records of the Bachman's Warbler in Louisiana, despite an intensive search for it, even in the vicinity of Mandeville."

Between being collected for specimens and hats, and losing its breeding habitat in the United States and its winter habitat in Cuba, this beautiful jewel quietly faded away, without attracting much in the way of attention or fuss from the wider world. It makes you wonder how many other treasures Mandeville has lost in its great rush to become the next Veterans Boulevard. Local birders have said that, many years ago, they had discovered a staging ground here for migrating Monarch butterflies. The area is developed now and, while the butterflies still migrate, they seem to go by in onesies, twosies, and threesies instead of the clouds of butterflies that one sees in photographs from Mexico.

*Louisiana Birds, Third Edition, by George H. Lowery, Jr.

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