Daily Archives: June 2, 2011

Guide to Birds of the West Indies

i-2f51ca83014b35de7d97723f26b9152d-westindiesbird-thumb-300x436-65557.jpg The West Indies includes the Lucayan Archipelago (Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands); the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Hispaniola [Dominican Republic and Haiti], Jamaica, Cayman Islands); the Lesser Antilles (Leeward Islands [the Virgin Islands of Saint Croix, Saint Thomas, Saint John, Water Island, Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, Jost Van Dyke], Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Antigua, Barbuda, Redonda, Saint Martin, Saba, Saint Eustatius, Saint Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat Guadeloupe); the Windward Islands (Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago), and the Leeward Antilles (Aruba, Curaçao. amd Bonaire). I may have missed a few.

Otherwise known as the Caribbean Islands, for the most part these islands are all high points on a large inland sea (which is mostly open to the ocean). It is the wintering grounds as well as the year round residence of numerous birds. If you live in the central or eastern US or Canada, a lot of birds show up in the spring; Many of those winter in the Caribbean. Of these birds, most, about 550, are nicely depicted, Peterson-style, in Norman Arlott’s abbreviated “checklist” style Birds of the West Indies: (Princeton Illustrated Checklists)

This book does not have much front matter telling you about bird watching, bird biology, bird ecology, or bird conservation. It dives right in to the plats and descriptions, which are organized by basic bird type with between 5 and 10 or so bird species per page (and more drawing where necessary). This is probably good if you are, say, a US based tourist and want to bring the bird book in your luggage and don’t need to learn what birdwatching is on your two week trip to Jamaica. For those who want more, consider A Guide to the Birds of the West Indies, which I have not seen, but that is by the same author and which is, according to the publishers, more than twice the pages and of a somewhat larger format, and quite a bit more expensive (but surely worth it if you live in or regularly visit the region).

The range maps, which are very important as the biogeography of the West Indies is complicated and interesting, are all at the back of the book. At first I thought this would be annoying but it is in the end necessary: Many birds occur on some tiny cluster of islands … as it is the maps are as small as they can be without losing utility, and at this size they are too big to put with the birds, if one also wants to have appropriate groupings of similar birds.

The drawings are high quality, the stock and binding are sturdy (I’ve got a paperback) and the book is in the standard field guide size range. If you are going to the West Indies and you’re a birder, you’ll want this.

Louis Agassiz + Alexander Agassiz + Charles Darwin + Coral Reefs = High Entertainment and Science!

There are many fascinating stories linked to the early days of evolutionary biology and geology, and more than one of them is intertwined with our understanding of coral reefs. I had always thought that Darwin’s interaction with the question of how coral reefs form was central to Darwin’s own formation as a scientist, in part because of Charles Lyell. Lyell was the Big Kahuna of geology and earth science of the day, and had more or less established the standing theory of how coral reefs formed. Darwin, on observing reefs “in the wild” very quickly realized that Lyell was mostly wrong, and proceeded to develop his own models for reef formation. But Darwin was timid, intimidated even, in the light of Lyell’s monumental stature in the field. This, I think, caused Darwin to use a multi-faceted approach to documenting his ideas and developing his models that then became something of a template for his later work, On the Origin of Species.

What could have been a major showdown between Lyell and Darwin turned out much differently. By the time Darwin had returned from The VoyageBooks on Travelogues) (of the Beagle) Lyell and others were aware of Darwin’s new models of reef formation. If Lyell was going to have a negative reaction to Darwin’s revisions of his (Lyell’s) work, that reaction was significantly reduced by the delay between first hearing that there was a revision and meeting up again with young Charles. As I understand it, Lyell was quite happy to have his work overturned.

But there was conflict, and the conflict continued for decades and indirectly or directly engaged everybody who was anybody in the field at the time. David Dobbs writes:

Today the main argument about coral reefs is how to save them. But in the 1800s, the question of how coral reefs arose, known as the “coral reef problem,” ranked second only to the “the species question” in ferocity. In many ways it reprised the evolutionary debate, engaging many of the same people and ideas. It provided both an overture and a long coda to the fight over Darwinism. The coral reef problem did not concern the origin of species or humankind’s descent. Yet it reiterated the evolutionary debate’s vexing questions about the importance of evidence, the proper construction of theory, and the reliability of powerful abstractions.

Continue reading Louis Agassiz + Alexander Agassiz + Charles Darwin + Coral Reefs = High Entertainment and Science!