Posts Tagged ‘upland sandpiper’

Inland Shorebirds of the Pleistocene

April 19, 2013

The Scolopacidae family includes birds that are commonly considered denizens of the sea shore, such as sandpipers and curlews, but 3 species are primarily terrestrial inhabitants.  The upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda), also known as the golden plover or Bartram’s plover, is the one most easily recognizable as a relative of its familiar sea shore cousins.   However, it preferes grassy environments where it feeds upon insects and grass seeds instead of marine worms, clams, and fiddler crabs.  Upland sandpipers were formerly an abundant bird of the prairies on the Great Plains and in the midwest, but market hunting destroyed the primeval population, and farmers replaced prairie grasses with fields of wheat and corn that are unsuitable habitats for this bird.  In March 1821 just 1 market hunter killed 48,000 upland sandpipers, demonstrating how abundant they used to be.  (They were regarded as a delicacy by Creole cooks.)  This bird will never regain its former abundance, but the remaining population is adapting to new anthropogenic grasslands–abandoned strip mines and airports.  

Upland sandpiper.  They are a ground nesting bird that feigns injury to draw predators away from their eggs and nestlings.

The upland sandpiper is a summer migrant to North America, and it winters on the Pampas of South America.  Aside from an occasional vagrant, this bird is presently absent from the southeast, but it was a common species in this region during the Pleistocene.  Fossil evidence of upland sandpipers, dating to the late Pleistocene, were found in Kingston Saltpeter Cave, Bartow County, Georgia and in Bell Cave in Northern Alabama.  This geographical area was mostly forested then, but extensive grasslands must have also existed because upland sandpipers favor nearly treeless habitats.

Both the above mentioned fossil sites yielded remains of the woodcock (Scolopax minor) as well, another terrestrial member of the Scolopacidae.  This bird uses its unusually long bill to probe moist earth for worms and grubs.  They are year round residents in the south, but much of the population migrates north for the summer.

Woodcock.  In Ohio they are arriving a month earlier in spring than they did 100 years ago due to global warming.

Woodcocks spend their days hiding in the woods but feed in open areas at night.  They favor 2nd growth woods with thickets that are adjacent to agricultural fields where they can hunt for earthworms in the tilled soil.  Like upland sandpipers, woodcocks are much less common than they used to be because of hunting and habitat loss.  In the Pleistocene south woodcocks likely were abundant because megafauna foraging and sudden climate fluctuations created mixed environments of young and old forests, thickets, and grasslands.  Moreover, large predators such as wolves and big cats kept numbers of foxes, raccoons, and possums relatively low, reducing nest predation.  The south was a refuge for woodcocks during the height of the Ice Age.  Genetic studies suggest the woodcock population expanded rapidly following the retreat of the glaciers as more habitat became available.

Male woodcocks display by making a “peent” call before flying in wide spirals above their potential mates.  The females lay eggs on the ground and carry their young with them for 18 days until the nestling learns to fly.  Then in late summer when they moult, woodcocks can’t fly and must hide in thickets, thus explaining why they need varied habitats.

Wilson’s snipe (Gallinago delicata) is another species of terrestrial Scolopacidae.  They live and nest in marshes where they hunt for worms, grubs, insects, and some plant matter.  They are an erratic fast flyer, making them difficult to shoot, hence the origin of the word, sniper.  Wilson’s snipes have a curious pattern of migration.  They winter in the southeast as well as in South America and migrate over dry land in the late winter and early spring.  But when they migrate south, they travel over the coast.  This explains why there are an additional 9 species of snipe endemic to various islands.  Storms blew some flocks off course where they found permanent refuge on isolated oceanic islands.

Wilson’s snipe–a marsh bird.  Their habit of migrating south over the coast has resulted in speciation on isolated islands.

Even some coastal species of Scolopacidae occasionally find their way far inland.  Joel McNeal photographed stilt-legged sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, black necked stilts, pectoral sandpipers, long-billed dowitchers, American avocets, western sandpipers, and semi-palmated sandpipers foraging on the sod farm that surrounds the Etowah Indian Mounds in Bartow County.  Here’s a link to his photos.


The Nature of the Picayune Creole Cookbook

November 21, 2012

In honor of Thanksgiving, the American holiday dedicated to gluttony, I offer this food-oriented essay.

Editors and journalists from the New Orleans Picayune newspaper published the Picayune Creole Cookbook in 1901 from recipes compiled in the late 19th century.  If the reader is interested in this cookbook, be sure to purchase the facsimile of the original published by Dover Publications and not the newer version published by Random House in 1987.  The ignorant clods who updated the original left out most of the historical recipes that made the original so unique and valuable for food historians.   The text of the original version is available for free online from the following link

The great variety of organisms consumed by Creoles during the 19th century makes the Picayune Creole Cookbook  an interesting one for naturalists as well as food historians.  Today, turtles are a regional specialty but have gone out of culinary style for most of the United States.  For 19th century Americans, turtle meat was an abundant and common source of protein.  The Picayune Creole Cookbook gives recipes for green sea turtles and diamondback terrapins.

Diamondback terrapin.  Reportedly a delicacy.

Diamondback terrapins live in saltmarshes all along the Atlantic coast from New England to Mexico.  Like so many other animals, they were formerly abundant but today are rare due to human consumption and coastal development.  I’ve never seen one.  Turtles were cooked in soups and stews, giving me the impression the meat is tough.  Turtle meat is not sold in stores around Augusta, Georgia and I’ve never eaten turtle.

The sheepshead was the most popular and “versatile” fish used in New Orleans around the turn of the century.  This species uses its human-like teeth to crush the shellfish that it feeds upon.  This diet is probably what makes them taste so good.

The teeth on a sheepshead look very human-like.  They eat clams and the teeth crush the shells.

Look at that beautiful…fish!

The Picayune Creole cookbook also has 5 recipes for eel, 4 for stingray, and 6 for frog.  Oddly enough, the only recipe for a freshwater fish species is for roe from green trout which is the name they used then for largemouth bass.  Most of the fish recipes are for marine species including pompano, bluefish, flounder, red snapper, red drum, and croaker.

One of the most interesting dishes in the book is Pigeon a la cardinale, known also as pigeon and crawfish–a combination I bet not a single person in the world will eat for supper tonight.  The dish calls for baking 3 pigeons between layers of bacon in a pan filled with beef broth and onions.  The crawfish are boiled separately.  After the pigeons and crawfish are done cooking, a little of the crawfish boil water is added to the beef broth and the pigeons are garnished with the crawfish.  The authors of the cookbook differentiate between domestic and wild pigeons.  The availability of passenger pigeons at the market was still a recent memory when they were compiling the recipes for this book.

The Picayune Creole Cookbook states that the pigeon and crawfish dish is “Creole to the letter.”  Now this dish is almost unheard of.  The above photo is the closest match I could find on google images.  It’s a roasted pigeon served with crawfish tails, softshelled crab, and vegetables, but not with bacon and a gravy made from pigeon, beef, and crawfish broth.  Passenger pigeons and crawfish were at one time both abundant, making pigeons and crawfish a practical dish.  Now, it’s not at all economical to make.

The canvasback duck (Nyoca vallosneria) was praised as the best-eating waterfowl because it ate wild celery (Vallosneria spiralis).  Some ducks eat a lot of fish, but canvasbacks are mostly vegetarian.  This diet gives their a flesh a savory quality.  They were simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and lemon juice and broiled quickly.

Male and female canvasback ducks–reportedly the best tasting of all ducks.  Duck is one of my favorite foods.

The bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorous) known as the reedbird in the Picayune Creole Cookbook, apparently was common table fair when in season. The second part of its scientific name means rice-devourer.  It still is a pest for rice farmers.  Creoles shot these members of the blackbird family to protect their rice fields.  It only takes 5 minutes to broil small birds such as bobolinks (robins and larks were also prepared this way).  I’ve never eaten a bird smaller than a quail.  It takes at least 2 quail to equal the amount of meat from about 1/4th of a chicken.  It probably takes about 4 bobolinks to equal 1/4th of a chicken.

The bobolink, also known as the rice bird.  It’s a pest to rice farmers and table fair for Creoles.

It took me a while to figure out what a pababotte was.  I’ve determined that the pababotte discussed in the Picayune Creole Cookbook is probably the upland sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda).  The upland sandpiper is a denizen of the prairie.  Fossil specimens of this species were discovered at Kingston Saltpeter Cave in Georgia and Bell Cave in Alabama.  Both localities are in a region where upland sandpipers are absent today aside from an occasional vagrant.  This is evidence that small pockets of prairie existed within the mostly forested region of the upper south during the late Pleistocene.  Upland sandpipers were once an abundant bird but overhunting and agriculture have greatly reduced their numbers.  J.J. Audubon witnessed 48,000 upland sandpipers killed in a single day by a group of hunters in 1810.  Creoles serve them stuffed and braised, roasted, or broiled.

Upland sandpipers were more widespread during the Ice Age.

Until 1861 an old French woman produced Fois Gras in New Orleans.  She raised geese in small cages.  She kept their feet nailed to the cage floor and force fed them to enlarge their livers.  I’m sure the enlarged livers are rich and delicious, but the practice seems cruel and wasteful–the rest of the meat is flabby and unfit for eating.  Raising geese for Fois Gras is illegal in the U.S. today.

There are many recipes in the Picayune Creole Cookbook that don’t require extinct or rare animals to make.  One of the best I’ve tried is a soup made out of beef ribs, corn, and tomatoes.  I could live on lentil salad–a simple recipe of lentils tossed in a vinegarette.  The gumbo recipes from the book use less roux than most modern gumbos and instead are thickened with powdered sassafras leaves or okra.  A gumbo made out of a leftover turkey carcass is an excellent example of frugality but I prefere a more roux-heavy version.  There are 7 recipes for different types of sausages, and I’ve made several, though in the shape of hamburger patties rather than links stuffed in casings.  For the home cook I think this book is still useful and will never go out of date.