Black-and-yellow wood-warbler (Photo by Don Reimer)
Black-and-yellow wood-warbler (Photo by Don Reimer)
Recently I visited Bowdoin College’s Special Collections Library to participate in their monthly page-turner event. Bowdoin is fortunate to possess a copy of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” which is on permanent display there. Printed between 1827 and 1838, it contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds, printed on handmade paper. The “double elephant”-sized folio measures 391⁄2 inches tall by 281⁄2 inches wide. Originally, the hand-engraved, unbound prints were issued in sets of five every month or two in tin cases. With each delivery, a subscriber received one large bird image, three small birds and one medium-sized bird. The frenetic pace of Audubon’s ambitious project kept him bouncing between acquiring and painting new species of birds, combined with his alternate efforts to market the prints in Europe and North America. The folio costing around $1,000, the limited list of purchasers was principally wealthy patrons and institutions. Today only 120 copies are believed to exist — 107 in institution collections and 13 in private hands.

What are Bowdoin’s page-turner events all about? On the first Friday of the month, the glass-shrouded folio case is rolled open, as two librarians delicately flip one giant page to the next. One might expect that white gloves are required for this process, but that’s not the case. It seems that wearing of gloves diminishes the turners’ sensitivity of touch when handling the priceless pages. Clean, freshly washed hands are the best tools for the job.

Since 2016, these monthly events draw between 45 and 70 visitors, including one who travels from Massachusetts each month. Directly following the page-turning event, a guest speaker describes each new species of the month and makes a few remarks to the audience. That’s where I entered the picture. Named by Mr. Audubon himself, my species was the “black-and-yellow wood-warbler.” If that name doesn’t ring familiar, there’s a good reason. When Alexander Wilson, another early and famous ornithologist, shot and collected one of these warblers from a magnolia tree some years later, it was renamed the “magnolia warbler.”

A spring magnolia warbler in vibrant breeding plumage is truly a sight to behold. With its black facial mask and distinctive black breast bands that radiate onto a deep-yellow chest, “maggies” nest in small conifers and forage low in the understory, picking insects from the undersides of leaves. Their energetic tail-flashing behavior helps to expose insects to capture.

In speaking on a theme of carrying forward Audubon’s spirit of natural inquiry, I mentioned three of my contemporaries who contributed gains in our current understanding of birds and their conservation. These three were Mark Libby, a birder/commercial fisherman of New Harbor, whose decades of significant records documented the presence of rare, and the more regular, pelagic and land species. Ralph S. Palmer was a noted Maine ornithologist, who published “Maine Birds” in 1949. His unifying clarifications of the state’s historical bird records provided a solid foundation for further bird study. Peter Vickery, a renowned birder and researcher with a keen interest in grassland species, worked to support grassland conservation work at Kennebunk Plains and other preserves. His long-awaited book on “The Birds of Maine” will be published posthumously later this year.

And so, Bowdoin’s successful page-turning events will continue for a spell. The progressive unveiling of Audubon’s folio, one species at a time, will take 36 years to complete.