Nycticorax nycticorax, collected May 23, 1877
On May 23, 1877, Edgar Alexander Mearns went looking for herons on Constitution Island near his home in Highland Falls, New York. Though still a young man, at twenty years old Mearns was already quite accomplished as a naturalist. He learned to hunt and trap from his father, who died when Edgar was just a teenager. And a bird book he’d been given as a boy encouraged his interest in ornithology— an interest that would turn into his life’s work.
Edgar’s first field book, which he titled, “An Ornithological Journal and Register,” begins in October of 1874 with a list of every bird he’d seen or collected since May, and then his notes and lists move forward in real time. The details he captured in his account of the Night Heronry on Constitution Island (an area currently protected as Constitution Marsh by the Audubon Society) offer a peek into his aptitude for scientific observation and his personality. And his handwriting — and spelling(!), especially when compared against the decades of field notes he made throughout his career, remind us that these words are only the beginning for Edgar Mearns.
Mearns started with the eggs, taking careful notes. He described the nests, and compared the number of eggs he observed with the scientific literature he’d read. And then Mearns moves from documenting to defending the herons’ nests. “Today,” he wrote, “I shot a crow in the act of stealing their eggs. He came silently, and stealthily, but my well directed shot closed his rapacious career, and he tumbled viglouriously [sic] to the mud just as he was about to indulge his gluttinous [sic] appetite at such great cost to the poor Heron.” Such drama! Having defeated the intruding crow, Mearns can return to observing heron behavior.
Mearns wrote, “As I advanced into the Heronry the sitting birds left their nests with heavy wing strokes and loud Guac-gua and afterwards, as they alighted in the distant pines, followed a series of gutural [sic] and barking sounds that made me laugh.” There’s something wonderful about this small detail — Mearns laughing with the herons as they fly up to the treetops — that helps us to understand his joy, his connection to these birds and all the others he studied.
It can be easy to see scientific work as separate from an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world; in this entry, Mearns easily demonstrates both. After a day of careful note-taking and specimen collecting, Mearns concludes with a story about one particular heron he encountered while perched high in a nearby tree. Mearns watched silently as the bird noticed him and “apprehended danger.” But though this heron saw Mearns, he did not fly away. Mearns wrote, “I noticed especially the beauty of the creature’s eye, and also that the long feathers on top his head always remain together — showing only one. At my first movement he flew away with a loud quack, at first dangling his legs but afterward the[y] stuck straight out behind his tail.” These details are small, but significant. This first field book, which offers a picture of Edgar looking for, learning about, even laughing with birds as a young man, hints at the naturalist he was already well on his way to becoming.
This night heron is one of the birds that Edgar Mearns collected that May day on Constitution Island more than a century ago. The bird is long-necked, and mostly white, with black feathers on the top of the head and the center of the back. Its legs stretch straight out from its body in much the same way Mearns described the heron in flight. There are prominent white feathers grouped together and stretching from the back of the head, forming what appears to be a singular, almost cylindrical plume, just like the bird Mearns observed from the tree. When paired together, field notes and a carefully prepared specimen allow scientists to understand physiology and behavior — and the links between them. All throughout Mearns’s notes, observations about birds seen and birds collected exist side by side. Not simply a collector, Mearns was also a scientist. His first publication, A List of the Birds of Hudson Highlands: with annotations was released the following year.
“An Ornithological Journal and Register.” Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7083, Mearns, Edgar Alexander, 1856-1916, Edgar Alexander Mearns Papers (held at National Museum of Natural History, Division of Birds), Box 8, folder 6.
Richmond, Charles W. 1918. "In Memoriam: Edgar Alexander Mearns, Born, September 11, 1856 - Died, November 1, 1916.” The Auk. 35 (1): 1-18.
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