In the birding world, records of sightings are important. Professional ornithologists and amateur birders keep lists and logs of what, where, and how many birds they see. Birders keep life lists of birds they have seen, often for local, state, national, and international travels.
If you know birders, they will gladly share tales of how certain birds have come and gone. For many, tracking down rare birds, is especially important, including those now rare because of human actions like habitat loss. A common refrain goes something like “Wouldn’t it be great to have seen what birds were here years ago before things changed?”
As a bird watcher, I share that wish and was delighted to learn of a story published in the Daily Herald on June 9, 1923, entitled “Winter Birds of the Biloxi, Mississippi, Region,” shared with me by my historian friend Else Martin. Having a basic knowledge of the birds of this region, reading the story was a fascinating bit of time travel, with a couple of tidbits about how observations about some of our winter birds have indeed changed.
Julian Corrington spent several weeks in the winter of 1920-21 visiting a variety of habitats and places across Harrison and Jackson Counties, including the more extensive woodlands, marshes, and swamps of that time, the open Mississippi Sound, Ship and Deer Islands, and what was called the Great Pascagoula Swamp. The work published in the Daily Herald was excerpted from The Auk, Volume XXXIX, 1922, pages 530-556. Here are a few of the more interesting observations and possible reasons.
Common Loons, Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, and Black Skimmers were common sights 100 years ago, but not Laughing Gulls. The coast seawall and its accompanying artificial beach would not be built until 1927. Today, Laughing Gulls are not hard to find, undoubtedly because they have become habituated to humans along beaches and parking lots. Cheeto or French Fry Hawks are common names for these adaptable birds.
Great Blue and Tri-color Herons (previously known as Louisiana Heron) were common along bayous in 1920, as they are now. Their habitats have largely remained intact.
Bobwhites were common across the area in 1920 because of the extensive woodland and open areas that provided great habitat that is now a continuous strip of urban communities. Wild Turkey was also abundant, especially in the areas around the Great Pascagoula Swamp. Both species are now uncommon locally.
House Sparrows were already a common bird associated with urban settings. This species was introduced to the U.S. on multiple occasions beginning in 1851 and remains associated with human communities.
The neatest observation made by Corrington was that of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers seen in the Pascagoula Swamp. Already under pressure due to habitat loss and hunting, it would last be seen in the delta region of Louisiana in 1944. Researchers have suggested that portions of the Pascagoula River bottomlands would support this species today if it still existed.
For me, observations of the multitudes of Myrtle Warbler (now called Yellow-rumped Warbler) found across all types of habitats brought a smile to my face. This species remains one of the most abundant birds that winter here, evidenced by the thousands recorded in local Christmas Bird Counts. Corrington reported that this species was first ranked in abundance of every other bird, estimated at 15,000. This species breeds in northern Canada and is undoubtedly one of the most prolific species in North America, then and now.
Some things change, sadly for obvious reasons, while others do not.
Hope to see you in our great outdoors!