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From the Stacks 

August 7, 2009

Early Bird Catches the Specimen

Beginning in 1919, Academy Director Barton Evermann and Joseph Mailliard, Honary Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy, began putting together a collection of photos and biographical sketches of ornithologists who had studied birds in California.   The first president of the Cooper Ornithological Club, William Otto Emerson was on the short list of early leading California ornithologists.   Emerson, an accomplished artist and photographer, answered Evermann’s request by donating over 40 photographs, many of which were included in Evermann’s and Mailliard’s California Ornithologists Collection.  The photo featured in this post is photo number 24 of that donation.

N21414, California Ornithologists Collection

From left to right are Henry Reed Taylor, Walter Bryant, Rollo Beck, and Richard C. McGregor, presumably at an early Cooper Ornithological Club meeting.  The photo was taken at William O. Emerson’s Hayward home in 1897.  By this time, Taylor and Bryant were accomplished ornithologists and McGregor was still a student at Stanford University.  Rollo Beck was at the tender age of 27 when this snap shot was taken.  And so this photo records a rare assembly of the old and new generations of ornithologists at the turn of the century in Northern California.  Coming across this photo was somewhat like coming across of a photo of your parents as teenagers.

The photo of this gathering is quite rare because Walter Bryant died just a few years later at the age of forty-four.  He was known for his exceptional specimens and considered an expert in mounting birds, particularly hummingbirds.  Bryant was noted as being especially kind to aspiring ornithologists and he was known as a patient and sympathetic tutor in the art of taxidermy.  One can almost hear Bryant patiently tutoring Beck in the trade while McGregor listens on, intensely puffing on his pipe in Emerson’s cramped attic studio.

The Condor featured an obituary at the time of Bryant’s death and appropriately, Emerson wrote of his friend, “Mr. Bryant, as I have known him, was a quiet, reserved, sparely built man, whom it was necessary to know by close association to appreciate his true worth. He was not given to joking but could tell a good story, and was kind to a degree to all. His was a large heart and an honest intent. He always had a good word for everyone and was ready to help the novice in bird lore as I had on many an occasion to learn in our early acquaintance.”

“No insect or bird could escape his eye or ear, as I learned from camp life with him under the white-limbed buckeyes on the banks of a trickling stream beneath Chick’s Cliff in the famed ‘Pine Canyon.’ The first thing in early daybreak, with the last call of the poor-will, Bryant would turn over and say from under his night-cap: ‘Come, Emerson, a fire, a cup of coffee, and then off for the early bird.’ No matter where or how hard the tramp might be, he was ready for it, and would take you to the nesting grounds of the gnatcatcher or to the duckhawk’s eyry in some ‘Castle Rocks.’ He was slow of movement but sure of purpose, and to tell him of some little known bird or animal was to start him off for it at once.”

I’d like to thank Barbara West , volunteer and resident Galapagos expert here at the Academy Archives, for her help in unraveling the rich history behind this remarkable photograph.

- Christina Fidler

Archives and Digital Production Assistant

Other sources referenced:

Harris, H. (1941).  The Annals of Gymnogyps to 1900.  The Condor, 43( 1), 51.

Fisher, W. (1905).  In Memoriam: Walter E. Bryant. The Condor, 7(5), 129-131.

Grinnell, J. (1938).  In Memoriam: Richard C. McGregor Ornithologist of the Philippines.  The Auk,5(2) 163-175.


Filed under: Academy History,Archives,Exhibits,Special Collections — Archives & Special Collections @ 12:54 pm

2 Comments »

  1. Aside from the importance of the individuals in the photo, it’s a really neat picture to look at just from a composition standpoint. First, the bright burst of white at the top center right creates a great contrast for the rest of the image. The jaunty angle of the cap on McGregor, the tobacco pipes, and most of all the stuffed birds (herons? Egrets? A birder might know) that seem so casually displayed in Emerson’s attic. It’s the sort of image I could stare at for a few minutes just to pick up the details.

    Thanks for highlighting it!

    Comment by Daniel Ransom — August 11, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  2. Drinking from water bottles – 1914
    I stare in fascination at photographs taken in the early twentieth century or really, any time last century. What intrigues me are the elements of life that are universal: people’s expressions, their everyday items serve the same purpose as they do today. Here is an image which illustrates this: http://images.swinburne.edu.au/handle/1111.1/3637

    Were the students given permission to drink during the lecture because it was very hot? (Australian summer). I am refreshed each time I see that technology changes; people do not. And I am ever grateful that technology allows me this opportunity for reflection.

    Comment by Sara Jervis — August 27, 2009 @ 12:31 am

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