Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alan Phillips and Purple Martins

Alan Phillips was a famous, if eccentric, ornithologist who lived in Mexico. He was fond of quotes.  He often trilled, "If ever I am accused of destroying the crops, I would certainly want an ornithologist to defend me."  I think of him every time I see Purple Martins.  Birders often claim that they keep mosquito numbers in check.  Look closely at the female martin on the left.  These martins are eating dragonflies, which, in turn, prey on mosquitoes.  So, if you are lucky enough to have martins nesting in your yard, chances are, because of reduced dragonfly numbers, you have more mosquitoes! This photo was taken several years ago near Watertown, South Dakota.

I met Alan Phillips when I worked at the Smithsonian as a college student. In January 1967, he agreed to take me on as an intern. I prepared and labeled specimens for him. Alan Phillips took me on my first ornithological expedition to the Laguna de Tamiahua, a huge lagoon south of Tampico. That winter (1967) was one of the coldest on record, with snow in El Paso and Mexico City. The result in semitropical Tamiahua was a huge lake full of dead fish. At first we thought someone was dynamiting them. But it was just the cold, not even freezing temperatures. Mangrove Swallows dropped from their perches. We found all sorts of different birds. Crimson-collared Grosbeaks skulked in the bushes and Rose-throated Becards perched in the small trees. Most exciting were Black-headed Saltators that lacked their characteristic black breast bands. Were these undescribed species, subspecies, plumages? To this day I do not know. But my future in ornithology was set.

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