By November of 1831, John James Audubon and his associates George Lehman and Henry Ward complete their preparations to search for birds in the pine barrens of the southeast and along the Florida coast. More difficult is tearing themselves away from the life and comfort of Charleston, South Carolina. “My friends had increased in number; they were in the habit of accompanying me in my shooting excursions; I was becoming very much attached to them; invitations poured in from various parts of the country; and I really believe that had I been willing, we might have remained there and in the neighborhood, if not all our lives, at least as long as would have caused a rare scarcity of the feathered tribes, in that portion of the Carolinas.” Audubon’s parting gift to assist him with his search for birds in Florida is a Newfoundland hunting dog.
Exploring the Pine Barrens
Audubon, Lehman, Ward, and Audubon’s grand Newfoundland board a schooner serving as a packet ship named Agnes. Among the first birds they encounter are flocks of Barn swallows “for several days in succession, until the beginning of December; but after the first frost none were to be seen. These could not have removed many decrees [sic] farther south, for want of proper food, and I suspect that numbers of them spend the whole winter along the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico.” Audubon underestimates the Barn swallow. They go well into South America in the winter. They have also found their way into Europe and Asia in the spring and summer and southern Africa in the winter. True to its name, where there is a barn, a Barn swallow is sure to want to occupy it.
More inland Audubon notes seeing the pine barrens “filled” with Eastern meadowlarks. The pine barrens once covered massive swaths of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas. They consisted mainly of Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) because of the tree’s tightly packed needles and its ability to withstand fire. Growing under the pines is the flammable material: grass and dense thickets of cactus and dwarf palmettos. In the fall when the grass became dry and turned brown, indigenous people set fires in the pine barrens to make them more open. This facilitated foot travel, improved hunting, and gave berry bushes a better chance to compete with the cactus and palmettos. The fires also disguised the birds: meadowlarks looked “as sooty as the Sparrows residing in London”; the breast and belly of the Downy woodpeckers “are so soiled by the carbonaceous matter adhering to the trees, in consequence of the burning of the grass at that season, that one might be apt to take a specimen in that state, as belonging to a different species.”
The blackened birds and pine barrens on which Audubon comments are now practically gone. Most of the Longleaf pine forests have been cut down and lost to development and agriculture. The few forests remaining have been replanted with faster growing pine trees for harvesting. Forest fires are suppressed in order to spare private property and timber trees. As a consequence, the numbers of some species of birds are growing. Others, like the Red-cockaded woodpecker, are crashing.
Pine Barrens Suit the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Best
Audubon notes the Red-cockaded woodpecker “is found abundantly from Texas to New Jersey, and inland as far as Tennessee. Pine-barrens suit it best, and it is nowhere more numerous than in those of the Floridas, Georgia, and South Carolina.” When nesting, the Red-cockaded woodpecker requires the tree to be alive yet infected with a certain fungus (Red Heart) that weakens the bark so that the bird can excavate a hole in the tree. The nests are such an undertaking that a breeding pair is able to rely on others, usually young from the previous year, to help construct the nest. Protection programs have also resorted to building boxes for the birds and installing them in trees.
The Brown-headed nuthatch is fairing little better than the Red-cockaded woodpecker. Audubon watches the Brown-headed nuthatch pursuing “their avocations with so much cheerfulness that the woods echo to their notes. I have seen a congregation of these Nuthatches, amounting to fifty or more.” It is a dozen or so Brown-headed nuthatches that today are all out to congregate. More common today is the White-breasted nuthatch. It is not as particular about access to pine trees, therefore its numbers have climbed in the southeast. This is the almost the opposite of Audubon’s observations. The White-breasted nuthatch “is found in all parts of our extensive country, it is yet the least numerous; there being to appearance more than three of the Brown-headed, and two of the Red-bellied [Red-breasted], for every one of the White-breasted.”
Sorting Out the Yellow Warblers
Also affected by the loss of pine barrens and woods along the Florida coast is the Palm warbler. Audubon notes the bird is “extremely abundant in the Southern States, from the beginning of November to the first of April, when it migrates northward. It is one of the most common birds in the Floridas during winter, especially along the coasts, where they are fond of the orchards and natural woods of orange trees.”
Except Audubon’s close friend and collaborator John Bachman argues that the Palm warbler (Sylvia palmarum) “has not yet been met with in the United States.” Bachman convinces Audubon his Palm warbler is a Yellow Red-poll warbler (Sylvia petechia) as identified by Alexander Wilson in his American Ornithology. Therefore, for the octavo edition (Plate 90), Audubon takes out the male Yellow Red-poll warbler in the double elephant folio (Plate 145) and puts it in the same company as the two Palm warblers in the double elephant folio (Plate 163). He then re-titles the bird a Yellow Red-poll wood-warbler (Sylvicola petechia).
If Audubon is stumped by the petechia birds, taxonomists are no less so. For Plate #88 of the octavo edition of Birds of America, Audubon combines the Blue-eyed warbler (Plate #95 of the double elephant folio) and the male Children’s warbler (Plate #35 of the double elephant folio) and renames them Yellow-poll wood-warblers. The Yellow-poll wood warbler (Silvicola œstiva) is known today as the Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia).
It has also since been determined that the Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum) is indeed met with in the United States. Thus, Audubon is redeemed with his identification of the Palm warbler. This leaves in question Wilson’s Yellow Red-poll warbler (Sylvicola petechia). It could be taken for what has now been identified as the brown population of the Palm warbler. The former breeds in eastern Canada, while the brown population breeds further to the west. No matter the form of Palm warbler, it is today far behind the gulls and starlings as the most common bird along the Florida coast in the winter.