Sunday, June 9, 2013

Lewis and Clark 1: Clark’s Grebe

One of the last birds that John Holden and I saw on our May South Dakota trip was a Clark’s Grebe. The rain was a downpour, but racing at such an angle that I was able to get this photograph from our car’s open window. I have previously blogged on how to identify this grebe, but seeing it started my wondering what birds have common names commemorating Lewis or Clark.

After Lewis and Clark returned from their explorations to secure the Pacific Northwest for the United States, Thomas Jefferson sent three of their bird specimens to Alexander Wilson for scientific description. The literature is a bit difficult to decipher as to what these three may be. Presumably they are Clark’s Nutcracker, Lewis’s Woodpecker, and, perhaps, the Greater Sage-Grouse. The former two species are the only birds I can find bearing the names of Lewis or Clark, plus the Clark’s Grebe which was considered for many years to be but a color morph of the Western Grebe. Further investigation reveals that the Clark’s Grebe is not named for William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame.  Instead the name honors John Henry Clark, a 19th-century American surveyor and naturalist.

Wikipedia lists seven birds described for the first time by European Americans during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In addition to the three already mentioned, are Common Poorwill, Interior Least Tern, McCown’s Longspur, and Trumpeter Swan. But here “described” is not used in the scientific context, but rather that Lewis and Clark mention them in sufficient detail to know what they saw. Johnsgard (2003) cites literature listing a total of 25 birds that are also mentioned by Lewis and Clark.

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