You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

~ Archive for MCZ ~

Notes from William Brewster: Signs of Spring


Here in the Greater Boston area we’ve had a week or so of beautiful spring weather. Robins are out foraging over soft ground, Red-winged Blackbirds flash their wings in wetland areas, and Song Sparrows are singing again. While we’re still likely to have more cold snaps and snow, we’re definitely feeling the season shift.

For ornithologist William Brewster, a productive day’s work often looked like a long ramble outside with a notebook and a gun, or later on, a notebook and a pair of binoculars. His daily journal entries often run many pages long as he notes the places he visited and every natural detail that stood out to him.

On March 25, 1891, Brewster spent the day riding and walking from Lexington to Belmont with a friend, and noted many of the signs of spring that we’re seeing this week.

Song Sparrow, photographed in Sagamore, Mass. Photos courtesy of Evan Lipton. © Evan Lipton 2013.

Song Sparrow, photographed in Sagamore, Mass.

Red-winged Blackbird, photographed in Milton, Mass. Photos courtesy of Evan Lipton. © Evan Lipton 2015.

Red-winged Blackbird, singing and displaying, photographed in Milton, Mass. Photos courtesy of Evan Lipton. © Evan Lipton 2013 and 2015.

(This journal entry has been abridged and broken into shorter paragraphs for readability.)

March 25, 1891

Started at 8.20 this morning with F. Bolles and drove to the Bryant farm in Lexington. The past six days have been cloudy and dismal with snow, sleet, and rain falling much of the time, but this morning the sun rose clear and there was a light breeze from the N. W. which by 9 a.m. had increased to a typical March wind, roaring through the leafless woods, ruffling the most sheltered forest roads and beating the tall, withered meadow grass savagely to and fro.

The greater part of the day, however, was just warm enough to be delightful, especially in openings in the woods and on sheltered hillsides. The air was bracing but at no time raw and there was a smell of earth mould and wet leaves. In short Spring was in the air.

The roads were dry and hard in most places and the grass tinged with green on sunny exposures while about spring holes it was vivid green. There is little snow or ice left except under evergreens in the woods and on the north side of high banks. The ground is still very wet and sodden and there is hard frost under the leaves everywhere in the woods.

We heard a Bluebird or two before reaching Waverly and two Song Sparrows, one opposite the Adams place being an exceptionally fine singer. As the horse was walking slowly up the steep pitch past the lower mill pond there was a sudden whirring of wings behind us on the right and a bevy of twelve Quail hurtled over our heads like a shower of cannon balls. They crossed the ravine just below the house and disappeared over the knolls beyond flying very fast and nearly 100 feet above the earth when above the bed of Beaver Brook. What disturbed them I do not know; certainly not our carriage for they rose among the pines at least 100 yds. from the road.

The willows were wonderfully beautiful as we entered their eastern end, the sunlight bringing out their old gold tints and lying lovingly on the long, straight reach of road that led away across the great, half flooded meadow. There were hosts of Song Sparrows here. Indeed we must have heard nearly a dozen and others were continually flitting across the road or rustling through the dry grass on its borders. Two Rusty Blackbirds rose from the flooded meadow and alighted in the top of a maple uttering their tinkling medley.

In the woods at the western end six or eight Crows were sitting in pairs in the tops of the tall oaks. A Red-wing, the only one seen during the day, was singing in the top of a hickory under which we drove without disturbing him. We drove past the Bryant farm to the Theodore Parker place and then returned. Just before searching the Bryant farm we started a musk rat from the road where, on the edge of a pond of rain water, he was sitting in the sun. He floundered and skipped over and through the shallow water in haste and finally disappeared in a half submerged stone wall.

Our drive home was a fitting close to the long, restful, delightful day. As we entered the Willows the sun was setting and its level beams threw a strong light on the tops of the trees, the road itself being in shadow.

A great flock of Crows (Bolles counted forty five) straggled off in a long, swarming line northward apparently starting on a migrating flight but perhaps on the way to a roost.

A musk rat kept abreast of us for a little way clearing deep furrow in the smooth surface of the ditch on the right of the road and finally humping his back and diving so smoothly as to leave scarcely a ring on the spot where he disappeared. Near the Payson place more Crows, a small flock, starting on a flight but heading first west and then nearly south-west.

The wind blew cold and strong and the light was fading fast when we reached home at about six o’clock.

You can read the full journal entry here on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

If you’re not familiar with the New England spring singers noted in Brewster’s journal entry, check out the videos below.

-Elizabeth Meyer

Notes from William Brewster: Winter Irruption


For a few days in January of 1893, Cambridge was abuzz with an unfamiliar sight: a sudden ‘irruption’ of red and gold birds that drew lots of attention.

William Brewster recognized them as Pine Grosbeaks. They’re beautiful birds: the males a have a soft red head and breast that fades to light gray underneath, and dark wings with two white stripes or ‘wing bars’. In females and juveniles, the red head is replaced with a gold color. Large finches, they have stubby, thick, seed-cracking in beaks, similar in shape to a Northern Cardinal’s. In the winter, large foraging flocks of Pine Grosbeaks often strip entire trees of their fruits, crushing through pulp and seeds and moving on when the food source has been exhausted.



Male (above) and female Pine Grosbeaks, photographed in Newburyport, Mass. Photos courtesy of Evan Lipton. © Evan Lipton 2013.

(These journal entries have been abridged and broken into shorter paragraphs for readability.)

Cambridge, January 10, 1893.

There were a good many Pine Grosbeaks scattered along the line of ashtrees on the ridge to my left and as I approached Mt. Auburn Street their numbers increased until upon reaching Mr. Hayes’s place I found the trees literally alive with them.

Soon after I stopped to look at them they began flying from every direction into a large white ash which stands near the foot of the avenue. This tree was loaded with fruit and with snow clinging to the fruit clusters and to every twig. In a few minutes it supported also more than a hundred Grosbeaks which distributed themselves quite evenly over every part from drooping lower to the upright upper branches and began shelling out and swallowing the seeds. The rejected wings floated down in showers and soon began to give the surface of the snow beneath a light brownish tinge. The snow clinging to the twigs and branches was also quickly dislodged by the movements, of the active, heavy birds and for the first few minutes it was continually flashing out in puffs like steam from a dozen different points at once. The finer particles, sifting slowly down, filled the still air and enveloped the entire tree in a gauzy veil or mist tinted, where the sun-beams pierced it, with rose, salmon and orange, elsewhere of a soft, dead white and of incredible delicacy and beauty, truly a fitting drapery for this winter picture- the hardy Grosbeaks at their morning meal.

They worked in silence when undisturbed and so very busily that at the end of an hour they had actually eaten or shaken off nearly half the entire crop of seeds. Some men employed in a marble cutter’s shop near the tree were neglecting their tasks to watch and discuss them. One of these men told me that a few Grosbeaks were seen in the tree late yesterday afternoon.

Cambridge, January 11, 1893

This was the great Grosbeak day; the city was simply flooded with them. Whenever or wherever I stepped out of doors I saw flocks of varying sizes flying overhead and the sound of their piping was always in my ears. Just after breakfast I took a walk up Brattle Street and found an immense flock feeding in an ash heavily laden with fruit in Mr. Piper’s place on the corner of Fayerweather Street. I counted 149 birds in this tree and there were fully half as many more in another ash in front of Mr. Richardson’s house on the opposite side of Brattle Street to Miller’s hearing Grosbeaks continually & seeing several flocks of from 30 to 50 birds each. They were in Hubbard Park the whole day and I saw a few on my own place but more visited the old cedar tree.

I had sent word to Faxon of this condition of things and at half-past three he arrived and we went together to the Piper place where we found the birds even more numerous than had been in the morning. They had stripped both ash trees and were operating on the fallen fruit.

Over the space covered by the spread of the branches of the Piper ash they were crowded together so closely as almost to conceal the snow[.] We divided into halves and made a rough count Faxon getting 108 and I 115 birds. We missed some and there were others in the trees and on the roofs of the neighboring houses. 250 would be a low estimate for the total number assembled here at this time.

They attracted much attention from the passers by and people in sleighs & on foot were continually stopping to look at them. One man asked if they were “harbingers of spring”, a question which gave us some grim amusement insomuch as we were suffering from the bitter cold and unable to stand still for more than a minute or two at a time.

As we were returning, about sunset, Grosbeaks were continually passing overhead coming from the direction of the Botanic Gardens and flying towards the West. I afterwards learned from Mr. Fernald that over 300 Grosbeaks spent the entire day in the Gardens and from Mr. Hoffman that there were about 70 in the College yard during the afternoon. These figures indicate that there total number in the city to-day must have exceeded 1000[.]

I visited the Hayes place this morning and again with Faxon in the afternoon but saw only a few stray Grosbeaks there. The men at work in the marble yard told me that the birds finished the fruit of the big ash before sunset yesterday. They spent most of the afternoon eating the fallen buds.

Cambridge, January 12 1893

Although Grosbeaks have continued very numerous through the day in the vicinity of my place their numbers have decreased very considerably as compared with yesterday – quite one half I should say. They have evidently exhausted the food supply hereabouts and are departing in search of fresh fields.

Brewster’s notes were the basis for an article published by the American Ornitholigsts’ Union in the ornithological journal ‘The Auk’. You can read Brewster’s article, ‘A Remarkable Flight of Pine Grosbeaks (Pinicola enucleator)’ at the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

-Elizabeth Meyer

Notes from William Brewster: A Day on a Boston Harbor Garbage Scow


On a bitter January morning in 1893, amateur ornithologist William Brewster took an excursion out past the Boston Harbor Islands, intending to take notes on marine birds and to collect a few if any caught his interest.

What better way to find Gulls and other seabirds than to hop onto a maritime garbage truck? The day’s bird notes are detailed and definitely an intriguing read for birders, but it’s his description of the city’s garbage disposal that make this entry particularly memorable.

(The passage is abridged and broken into shorter paragraphs for readability.)

January 19, 1893. Boston Harbor.

Met E. A. [Edward A. Bangs] & Outram Bangs by appointment at Fort Hill Wharf, Boston, at 10.30 A.M. Half an hour later we started down the Harbor (Dr. Sidney Holditch accompanying us) in a large scow loaded with city garbage consisting chief of decayed fruit, vegetables[,] scraps of meat etc. from the market and such from private houses, besides a great quantity of coal ashes and a miscellaneous assortment of waste paper, paper boxes battered tin cans etc. -in all some four hundred cart loads gathered during the preceeding twenty-four hours by the city scavengers.

This scow alternates with another of similar build in making daily trips, in tow of a tug, to the dumping grounds well outside the outer islands.

Despite the ice which, in cakes of varying size and thickness, covered the water for the first half of the way, we made such good progress that by 1 P.M. we reached the Graves and got rid of our redolent cargo.

This was accomplished quickly & easily by two men for the scow is so constructed that by the aid of a simple piece of mechanism the hull can be split in two longitudinally allowing a broad stream of water to flow directly through the hold from stem to stern and sweep everything out. The halves are hinged together of course & are prevented from sinking by capacious air chambers.

The tug steams steadily ahead during the operation so that the contents of the scow are not deposited in one spot but trail out behind forming a broad belt on the water for a distance of several hundred yards the ashes sinking quickly of course but much of the vegetable matter and all the paper floating, at least for a short time.

The great quantity of garbage thus spread out over the water usually attracts immense numbers of Gulls. Indeed we had been assured by several passengers who had made the trip that most of the birds in the harbor followed the scow to the dumping ground where others joined them from the open ocean until the assembled birds numbered thousands. The scow men confirmed this and added that the birds, having never been molested, ordinarily behave in the most fearless manner flapping past within a yard or two of the boat and were attempting to snatch choice morsels from her deck load.

It was to see all this and perhaps shoot a few specimens if anything rare was found among the birds that we undertook this expedition but we were utterly disappointed for the Gulls showed scarce any interest in the movements of the scow to-day.”  

Disappointingly, he did not see many birds he’d been hoping to encounter: no Guillemots, Auks, Puffins, Loons or Grebes, which he’d seen on a similar Boston Harbor trip in 1879.

He did note a large mixed flock of Herring Gulls and Black-backed Gulls (Great or Lesser), as well as a Kittiwake, large groups of Goldeneye Ducks and Red-breasted Mergansers, a ‘Gooseander’ (Common Merganser), a Black Duck, a ‘Velvet Scoter’ (today, the common name of a Eurasian species; it may have been one of our three New England species, a White-winged, Black, or Surf Scoter), and at least 25 seals, which he thought might be Harbor Seals

You can peruse his full journal entry here on the Biodiversity Heritage Library website.

-Elizabeth Meyer

Notes from William Brewster: American Robin


“It is sunset and as I sit in my study in the Museum a Robin is singing in an elm in the garden. What a hopeful, earnest strain! It always cheers and encourages me. Our Robin must have a brave heart and a pure conscience.”

– William Brewster, in correspondence to his friend, ornithologist Frank Michler Chapman. March 26, 1893. Cambridge, Mass.

William Brewster (1851-1919) grew up in a Cambridge of farm fields filled with singing Eastern Blue Birds and large flocks of Snow Buntings where we now have introduced House Sparrows. As a teen, he collected birds and practiced taxidermy, and carefully noted the dates when his family ate the year’s first lettuce and strawberries. If you’ve browsed the galleries at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, then you’ve passed by some of his life’s work; after working as an animal specimen curator at the museum for many years, he bequeathed his collection of birds and other animals to the museum.

Brewster’s fascination for birds and his observant note-taking laid the groundwork for his career as a prominent North American amateur ornithologist. He was the first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a president of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

An ongoing project at the the Ernst Mayr Library has been the digitization and transcription of Brewster’s diaries, field journals, and correspondences. Some of these journals and diaries are available to read on the Biodiversity Heritage Library, and we are working toward making all his notes accessible for study.

I joined the library a year ago as an assistant for this project, and I’ve spent this time immersed in Brewster’s world. As a Boston-area native, I’ve found some of it surprisingly familiar. Brewster watched the landscape and ecology change dramatically over the course of his life, yet some of his favorite local haunts still draw bird-watchers and dog-walkers today: Fresh Pond and Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Walden Pond in Concord, and Ponkapoag Pond in the Blue Hills, to name just a few. His notes are an enormously valuable resource for scientists interested in studying ecological and climatological change, but they’re also sprinkled with amusing observations, beautiful scenes, intriguing facts and bizarre stories that I’d like to share with you in a series of short blog posts.

Roger Tory Peterson’s original field guide called the American Robin “the one bird that everyone knows.” The Robin that Brewster heard on that March evening seems a perfect place to begin this series. Not only does the passage express a beautiful sentiment, but the familiarity of Robins and their sounds can make it feel quite comfortable for us to sit at an unfamiliar desk in Brewster’s museum office, watching the sun set in 1893. His comment on the “brave heart and a pure conscience” of the bird certainly isn’t objective science, but it connects us to a moment that I think we’ve all experienced before: an animal encounter that punctures our daily routine to remind us, briefly, of how wide the world is.  

Play the video below to hear a Robin’s “hopeful, earnest strain” similar to the one that uplifted Brewster’s spirits in March of 1893. Those of us who are feeling winter-weary sure could do with the brave winter Robin’s encouragement.

American Robins are so ubiquitous that you might never have thought to learn about them. Check out the Peterson Field Guide video below to see how much you know. 

See you again soon!

– Elizabeth Meyer

Transcribing the Field Notes of William Brewster


William Brewster (1851-1919) was a renowned American amateur ornithologist, first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and a president of the American Ornithologists’ Union. He was an avid collector of birds and their nests and eggs, and collected over forty thousand specimens from 1861 until his death in 1919. His collection, bequeathed to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, is considered one of the finest private collections of North American birds ever assembled. Though Brewster collected throughout North America, his collection is especially comprehensive in its coverage of the birds of New England. Brewster thoroughly documented his collecting trips. His journals and diaries are a gold mine of scientific observations and a delightful account of years spent exploring the woods, fields, lakes, and rivers of New England.

The Ernst Mary Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology is in the process of digitizing its collection of Brewster’s field notes and observations, and making these available worldwide via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). As part of a project led by the Missouri Botanical Garden, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we have begun efforts to transcribe Brewster’s voluminous field notes with the ultimate goal of making the full text of his observations searchable and available for any number of uses. As an initial trial project, we have placed ten digitized volumes of field notes on two crowdsourcing websites, and we invite anyone interested to help us accomplish our goal of transcribing at least 2000 pages of Brewster’s journals. The crowdsourcing websites chosen for this project are the Biodiversity Volunteer Portal (BVP), a collaboration between the Australian Museum and the Atlas of Living Australia; and a BHL installation of FromThePage, a transcription tool developed by Ben Brumfield.

Please feel free to visit one or both of these transcription sites, create an account, and enjoy Brewster’s idyllic writing style while helping to unlock his valuable observations for the benefit of all. We also invite you to browse Brewster’s diaries and journals on the BHL portal.

Ivory-billed woodpecker from 1890 journal

Ivory-billed woodpecker from 1890 journal

Farish Jenkins 1940-2012


It is with great sadness that we have to report that Farish Jenkins passed away on November 11, 2012 after waging a strong fight against cancer.

When the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology awarded him the Romer-Simpson Medal in 2009, Farish shared his own memories and insights about his career: 2009 Romer-Simpson Medal Recipient

Others have already said it better than I ever could, but Farish Jenkins will be greatly missed.

Read the notes on the PLoS blog Tooth and Claw and from the Nature newsblog to get a sense of Farish Jenkins. The November 14 Boston Globe obituary sums up Farish Jenkins well.

Some of the words used to describe Farish: caring, polite, true gentleman, charismatic, adventurer, storyteller, rare, brilliant, patient. He was all of these things, but more than anything, Farish was an anchor. He provided the reference and research staff in the Ernst Mayr Library with many intriguing and complicated searches for just the right information. He spent time explaining why he needed something specific. He respected the abilities of the staff in the library and museum. He always thanked us for our work on his behalf, no matter how small our contribution. He was funny and a joy to have around. He was an excellent and popular teacher–students could relate to him easily. He could launch a formidable argument–so it was important to be sure of your facts and clear in your reasoning. Farish always did his homework and expected that you would too. Farish never failed to acknowledge good work done by others. He took delight in showing newcomers the “secrets” of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, whether that meant little-known paths through the building or unexpected stories about past inhabitants or current specimens housed in the Museum. The halls of the MCZ will be quieter and less interesting without Farish around.

Farish Jenkins & Jim McCarthy, 1984. From the Archives of the MCZ in the Ernst Mayr Library.

Field Notes and Cockroaches


Field Notes from the Ernst Mayr Library collection.

Last week there were a couple of events in the Ernst Mayr Library. On Thursday we were visited by about a dozen attendees from the “Take Note” conference held at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. This conference brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore the role of note-taking in different disciplines. The conference also launched a virtual exhibition entitled “An Exploration of Note-Taking in Harvard University Collections“. There was also discussion and review of emerging digital annotation tools.

The students and scholars who visited the Ernst Mayr Library were treated to a lecture and note-taking session organized by Michael Canfield. Additionally they viewed biologists’ field notes from the 19th and early 20th century. The display included one of John James Audubon’s notebooks–mostly text, field notes from Louis Agassiz coupled with illustrations by his travelling artist, Jacques Burkhardt, a psychiatrist’s bird watching lists,sketches and notes along with field notes and analytic compilations from William Brewster, Curator at the MCZ from 1885 to 1902. Connie Rinaldo gave a brief presentation about the Biodiversity Heritage Library partner IMLS grant Connecting Content: A Collaboration to Link Field Notes to Specimens and Published Literature to which the Ernst Mayr Library is contributing digitzed versions of Brewster’s field notes, diaries, photographs and correspondence along with MCZ specimen images from Brewster’s collection of birds from Cambridge, MA.

Pages from Audubon’s field notes (1840-1842)

Agassiz’s notes on Brazilian Fish, 1865 or 1866 along with Burkhardt illustration.

So what about the cockroaches? The library pets, hissing cockroaches, have new and more spacious digs so we thought it was a great time to show them off along with some books from the amazing collections of the Ernst Mayr Library. Since the field notes were already on display, we added some books with cockroach images and announced a Friday afternoon “flash” exhibit complete with snacks. We know some folks were unable to attend and were disappointed, so feel free to ask for a tour, either private or for your lab. Check with Connie Rinaldo, Dana Fisher or Mary Sears.

Checking out the Hissing Cockroaches.

Wildlife around the Museum


As you might already know, the Ernst Mayr Library has a colony of hissing cockroaches as library pets. Recently these cockroaches have moved to larger digs. The new, big tank was donated by Dr. Alan Grant, a Visiting Scientist at HSPH. Thank you Dr. Grant! Stop by and hold a few hissing cockroaches and you will wonder why you ever thought your cat was so cuddly.
Hissing cockroaches as Library pets
Occasionally you can also see wildlife around the MCZ–living animals, not just the amazing research collections full of treasures or the incredible exhibits in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
In June, I walked out of the building and was privileged to watch a turkey hen foraging. The turkey didn’t seem bothered by the people walking along the paths.

More recently, as I hurried to the Oxford St. garage, anxious to get home, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw a young rabbit hopping around near the entrance.

Romantically, I would like to think there is a previously unknown breeding colony of New England Cottontails (Sylvilagus transitionalis) finding enough scrubby acreage to survive and stealthily hiding from the humans at Harvard,

New England Cottontail,

or even some sneaky Eastern cottontails (Sylvilagus floridanus). Alas, I am probably living in a fantasy world and this one has escaped from a less ideal setting. Any mammalogists want to comment?

Log in