14 April 2010

Russian Scientist Voznesenskii Documented Birds in 1840s California and Alaska

A little-known, yet important contribution to historic ornithology of northern America can be derived from an around-the-world voyage along the eastern coast of the Pacific Ocean, derived from the significant scientific endeavours by Il'ia Gavrilovich Voznesenskii.

As a preparator for the Zoological Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences on a profound journey of discovery in far-off lands, the narrative by Voznesenskii conveys in a vague manner - apparently he had a greater interest in nature than writing about it - details of natural history in Russian America in the early 1840s. Trading stations of the Russian-American Company, focused on a profitable exchange of goods obtainable in the northern Pacific, were the primary places visited.

During his voyage of ten years, his salary was 1600 rubles per year, with an additional 1200 rubles to buy "natural products of all kinds," according to the account published by A.I. Alekseev, as translated into English by Wilma C. Follette.

With a slew of instructions, this man - starting on August 20, 1839 - was on a great adventure for which he did not have any sense of expectation or knowledge of what scenes would be seen.

The northern Pacific was reached in an indirect manner. The first stop noted in the account was Helsinki, then Copenhagen, and after a crossing of the Atlantic, a safe port Santa Cruz Harbor, at Rio de Janeiro.

During the respite, some of the first specimens were acquired for the zoological collection, including: "black crabs, a jacko parrot, hummingbirds, and others," according to the published account.

The boat voyage continued, going south and then around Cape Horn, and up the western coast on the southern continent in America. Along the way, this naturalist contacted others of a similar ilk at the places where time was available. In Chile, it was Doctor Sahlberg and Pastor Cygnaeus.

His dedicated efforts continued, with a "stuffed condor, a heron, a duck, a flamingo, an albatross and a hummingbird" enriching his collections.

Apparently the trip expenses were more than the funds available, as Voznesenskii borrowed some money from Dr. Sahlberg.

Items obtained were sent back to the Russian Academy as suitable points were reached.

In early July, 1840, the Russian set out for northern California, with a subsequent stay at Fort Ross.

It was obviously a productive place for an inquisitive scientist:

"In a short time I prepared for dispatch to the Museums of the Imperial Academy of Sciences 15 pieces (15 crates of different kinds of natural history objects and also ethnographic items, of which three were with things collected in Sithka, and two kegs with soft bodied animals in alcohol). These parcels were loaded in San Francisco on the round-the-world ship Nikolai I on October 16th on her return journey from Sithka to Russia."

Locales visited in California included San Francisco Bay, Cape Mendocino and Yerba Buena.

The notebook during this period at least included one entry of birdly importance:

"The cry of the woodpecker, the back of whose head is adorned with red feathers, resembles the cry of a magpie, this while he is flying from one place to another."

Might this have been the Acorn Woodpecker? There are no clues to determine an accurate identification in the few words presented.

Other places he noted included Mission St. Clara and Pable, Napa, Sausalito, the vicinity Los Ancheles (i.e., Angeles), and Carmel Island. There are a number of sketches which illustrate some of the people and places visited.

The scientist's time here corresponds with the end of Fort Ross, whose Russian existence had been liquidated on April 15, 1839, with any items which could be removed shipped to Sithka.

Kodiak and the Alaskan Islands

After his temporal interlude along the southerly coast, Voznesenskii went north to New Archangel, and during his stay in March-April 1842, met with an another Russian explorer, L.A. Zagoskin. Both of these men were investigating features of the region, and it must have been a pleasure for them to enjoy conversations about topics of common interest, and to discuss whatever was notable for a day.

There was also the library of Mr. Gepner to visit - with a "good selection of books" - and for a scholar, this must have been a treasure conducive to a quiet time of reading important words, and learning more of some subject or particular interest.

Natural history studies conducted here received little consideration in the narrative of the journey. Nothing about birdlife is included in the published account. His notes mostly pertained to expenses and purchases! This was while he visited several notable places in the vicinity.

He did buy a "patterned cormorant parka." In early June, 1843, he noted a yellow-cheeked cormorant at Unalashka Island.

Before his departure, he prepared further copious collections for shipping back to the Russian museum.

The voyage to the west, was along the islands of the Bering Sea. At St. George Island, birds were abundant.

On July 14, some "podorozhnik" were shot at Cape Espenberg on Kotezbue Sound. They were designated to the snow bunting family.

On August 26, 1842, there was a Ruff, a first-autumn bird (ZIAS 52155) noted from Kenai.

Three months were reportedly spent on St. Paul Island. Yet the only mention of birds is basically just for two species at this locale, buried amongst many other records for Alaska given in an inventory for the known species and subspecies of Alaska birds..

Emberiza rustica latifascia; specimen of summer male taken (ZIAS 41346); and
Sterna hirundo longipennis; common tern; summer adult taken (ZIAS 53437).

In 1844, the ship Promysel set sail towards the shore of eastern Russia, and the notations for North America ended. The next intriguing findings are from the Kurile Islands and Kamchatka.

With all of the history inherent in a voyage of many years, there are surprisingly few details of the results.

Destitute History

Information on the birds noted by Voznesenskii while along the coast of America, refers to birds very rarely, yet there are certainly more details which have been documented.

Following his eventual return to Petersburg, the scientist whom had been exploring, became curator and would retain his position for more than two decades. Certainly the material he had gathered during the several previous years was appreciated again and again as he cared for the collection.

"For the review and account of the plan of the journey, I have the honor to present to Your Excellency an extract taken from my travel records of the grand total of the collected objects which are located in the Zoological Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences."

The final tally included 2,859 specimens of ornithological objects, including skins, nests and eggs. There are also colored pictures, and "contours of various animals."

The various sorts of bird species and where collected is unknown and the information they may convey is still a mystery now, more than a century and a half later after they were carefully gathered and sent to a museum for safe-keeping.

Voznesenskii's efforts deserve further attention and further scientific study to convey birds of time long ago. How supremely interesting it would be to determine what birds he observed or collected, and where. What tidbits of importance to today's science might be realized by such a thorough investigation records for what he found? It is all based upon the essential details gathered by another essential Russian journey of exploration in America.

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