On June 15, 1881, amateur ornithologist Eugene P. Bicknell was exploring the summit of Slide Mountain, the tallest of New York’s Catskill peaks, when he spied an unfamiliar thrush. Although a financier by profession, Bicknell knew his birds (and plants) cold. This was no Swainson’s Thrush. Out came his trusty shotgun —an ornithologist’s standard tool of the trade back then— and the immortalization of a bird that now bears his name, and has become a flagship species in VCE’s conservation portfolio.
In June of 2003, Kent McFarland and I had the privilege of hosting E.P. Bicknell’s maternal grandsons, Eugene Bicknell Doggett and William “Wick” Doggett, at our long-term study site on Mt. Mansfield. Both are birders and were eager for a first encounter with their grandfather’s namesake. We managed to mist net several Bicknell’s Thrushes that morning and captured a classic image of Gene holding one prior to release, with Wick looking on admiringly. It was a great moment for all of us.
This past Tuesday, exactly one day after the 134th anniversary of Eugene Bicknell’s landmark discovery, a fifth generation descendant, Edward “Teddy” Bicknell Doggett, joined VCE staff on Mansfield, with his grandparents Gene and Nina Doggett. It didn’t take long for Teddy’s indoctrination into BITHnology to occur. Despite a windy and wet evening, with only a muted dusk chorus, skies cleared overnight, and we were able to open 22 nets at dawn. Shortly after 5:00 am, we solidified the generational connection, handing Teddy his first Bicknell’s Thrush for release. Moments later, we had both mist-netted Bicknell’s and Swainson’s thrushes for comparison and dual release. The encounter provided an enduring memory, and surely would have made Teddy’s great-great grandfather enormously proud.
We may know a great deal more about Bicknell’s Thrush than E.P. Bicknell did 134 years ago, but the bird retains much scientific mystery and poses a continuing challenge for conservation. Perhaps this week’s visit spawned a future BITHnologist to carry on his great-great grandfather’s legacy. There is plenty of work left to do!