Date: 3/15/17 8:03 am
From: Harry Armistead <harryarmistead...>
Subject: [Va-bird] Revels Island, back in the day.
REVELS ISLAND, back in the day, during George Shiras’s time.


Curtis Badger has done a good service by calling attention to the pioneering wildlife photographer George Shiras III (1859-1942) and his documentation of birds of the Eastern Shore’s Revel Island. Revel Island is slightly west of the south tip of Parramore Island, Accomack County, Virginia. Curtis’ article is in Virginia Wildlife, March/April 2017, pages 26-29, and has 5 of Shiras’ evocative photographs, taken over 100 years ago. For much of what appears below I’m indebted to Curtis.


Shiras’ Revel Island experiences and writings are also reprised in Seashore chronicles: three centuries of the Virginia barrier islands edited by Brooks Miles Barnes & Barry R. Truitt (U. Press of Virginia, 1997, 248pp.), to which I am also indebted. But much of the analysis and detail below is my own.


In his day Revel Island was much more extensive, boasted several buildings for club members, was staffed by a celebrated African-American woman cook as well as local white guides, grew vegetables, had a resident beast of burden, an ox, and there was waterfowl and shorebird gunning, meals with fresh clams, oysters, and fish, and the good fellowship those old clubs enjoyed. Those were the Halcyon years. However, spring hunting, especially of shorebirds, and egging, especially of Laughing Gull eggs, were still a feature at the time Shiras joined the Revels Island Club, in 1894. Shiras was instrumental in fostering legislation that made such activities illegal.


Shiras’ splendid, magisterial book Hunting wild life with camera and flashlight (2 volumes, National Geographic Society [NGS], 1935, 904 pages in aggregate) celebrates his times at Revel Island in 2 chapters: “Chapter V - part I, Eastern Shore of Virginia - earlier visits to Revels Island” pp. 63-82, and “Chapter V - part II, Last days at Revels Island,” pp. 83-96. I was lucky enough to come by a set of this title, I think in the 1960s, for a mere $5, but haven’t given it the attention it deserves.


Species photographed by Shiras at Revels, and/or their eggs, nests, and youngsters, in his book are: Northern Bobwhite (but … a mainland nest), Green Heron, Osprey, Clapper Rail, Wilson’s Plover, American Oystercatcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Red Knot, Pectoral Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Black Skimmer, Common Tern, Common Nighthawk (but see commentary below), Northern Flicker, Fish Crow, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Eastern Meadowlark, and Common Grackle. There are 42 Revels Island photographs. It is common for people familiar with such places to give them the possessive, as in Hooper’s Island, Fishermans Island, Elliotts Island, with or without the apostrophe, even if the “correct” name is not possessive.


Some of the shots show shorebirds coming in to decoys. Shiras has the endearing quality of often referring to birds by their colloquial names: Calico Back (turnstone), Black-headed Gull (Laughing Gull), Robin Snipe (knot), Seaside Finch (Seaside Sparrow) et al. I’ve some familiarity with such names, but Grass Snipe (Pectoral Sandpiper) I hadn’t heard before. Many Eastern Shore folks refer to the Loblolly Pine as the Yellow Pine. So does Shiras.


Shiras was no shrinking violet, hunted a lot, was a lawyer, angler, served in the U. S. Congress (1903-1905), was on the board of NGS, and otherwise gathered no moss. His father was a Supreme Court justice. His book rambles all over. Volume 1 concentrates on the Lake Superior region, but Volume 2 has chapters on Newfoundland, New Brunswick, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, the Bahamas, Louisiana, Mexico, Panama, Yellowstone, Arizona, and Alaska. It is a gem. Over a period of several decades Shiras periodically visited Revel Island.


But it does have some mistakes in the Revels Island chapters. The 2 photographs of a “Chuck-will’s-widow” on pp. 84 & 85 are of a Common Nighthawk. The Virginia barrier island surveys by Bill Williams, Jerry Via, et al., done for many years recently, sometimes found a pair or 2, apparently breeders, on the islands. Up in Delaware they breed in the Cape Henlopen area. On p. 75 “Calico backs are swift on the wing” instead of an all-turnstone cast, shows 2 oystercatchers in the foreground and a rather distant turnstone behind them.


Those were the good old days. In spite of the slaughters going on, this is the sort of remembrance that makes me wish for a time machine. Shiras refers to such obsolete phenomena as kerosene torch, naptha launches, leg-of-mutton sails, and snipe potpies as well as birds being “awing” (on the wing?). The first clubhouse was built in 1885. Most of the later buildings are in a photograph on page 67 and there are photographs of Jerry the ox, a huge pile of harvested Laughing Gull eggs, an old catboat, and a pile of eggshells in a dump created by predatory Fish Crows.


Revel Island, what’s left of it, lies within the Nassawadox Christmas Bird Count circle on its north perimeter. One of my fantasies is to camp there and spend the entire count day on the island, scoping the rough waters of Quinby Inlet and the south end of Parramore Island. Maybe … some day. Revels is the only Eastern Shore island I’ve never been to.


Going back even further there is Frank M. Chapman’s Bird studies with a camera: with introductory chapters on the outfit and methods of the bird photographer (D. Appleton & Co., 1900, 218pp.) with over 100 photographs. It’s not that much of a stretch at all to proceed from Shiras and Chapman to a next step: the NGS’s Stalking birds with color camera (1951, 328pp., by Cornell’s venerable Arthur A. Allen), chock full of great photographs and hundreds of charming captions, such as “Tail erect, air sacs inflated, a Ruddy Duck courts his lady love” and “Like Ulysses, the Sanderling ‘Cannot rest from travel.’ “ The chapter “Birds of timberline and tundra” inspired me, eventually, to take the whole family on a trip to Churchill, Manitoba.


Farther afield is An eye for a bird by the great English photographer, Eric Hosking, who lost an eye when attacked by a Tawny Owl (p. 20, Paul S. Eriksson, Inc., 1970, 302pp.). Hosking was the pre-eminent European bird photographer of his time. Allan Cruickshank, Frederick Kent Truslow, Samuel A. Grimes, and Roger Tory Peterson (photos well showcased in his Birds over America [Dodd, Mead & Co., 1948, 342pp.]) were other great American bird photographers, before the days of modern equipment. In our own time Brian Small, Adam Riley, and Kevin Karlson are outstanding. There are many others. Hundreds in these days of sophisticated photographic armamentarium (armanmentaria?).


Best to all. - Harry Armistead, Philadelphia.
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