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Thayer's Legacy

Thayer's Gull and the Surfbird are both winter residents of the Bay Area coastline.  Both birds breed in the Arctic north of the 59th Parallel.  They also share a thread of human connections that includes two Bay Area birders.  That thread began with John Eliot Thayer (1862-1933). 

Thayer was the son of a Boston banker, Nathaniel Thayer.  There's a building at Harvard named for the elder Thayer who also funded some expeditions by Harvard's Louis Agassiz.  Young John graduated from Harvard, married and moved to Lancaster, Mass.  There on the family farmland he built a home near the Nashua River, a tributary of Thoreau's beloved Merrimack River.  From there he rarely strayed.  Thayer even complained when he had to travel 35 miles into Boston. 

In the 1890s Thayer became interested in local birds.  He and his eldest son would spend hours afield collecting birds and eggs.  Soon his collection needed a home, and Thayer hankered after more exotic species.  He too began to pay for expeditions, first to Mexico and then to Alaska.  Thayer, of course, never left Lancaster.  But he did build a museum there to house his bird collection and opened it to the public. 

By 1913 the Bay Area biologist, Joseph S. Dixon (1893-1952), was a veteran Alaskan bird collector.  While still an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley he had gone twice to Alaska on expeditions led and paid for by Annie Alexander, who founded and funded the university's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.  After he graduated, Dixon worked at MVZ in Berkeley.  In 1913 Dixon led a group of Harvard graduates sent to Alaska under the patronage of John Thayer.  The other scientist was W. S.  Brooks of Harvard.  The whole expedition nearly perished after their ship got trapped in ice along Alaska's north coast.  That was September 3rd.  While trapped on the shore of the Beaufort Sea, Dixon collected hundreds of birds, including a pale gull with pink legs.  When the ship got free of ice in the summer of 1914, the men returned south.  Back at Harvard Brooks compared the pale gull with others already in the Harvard collection, labeled at that time "Kumlein's Gulls." The earlier specimens had come from Ellesmere Island.  Brooks decided they were all representative of a new species and named it for the expedition's sponsor: Larus thayeri, Thayer's gull. 

The controversy over this species continues.  Kenn Kaufman in his Lives of North American Birds says, "It is closely related to the Iceland Gull, and the two are sometimes very difficult to tell apart; they may be only forms of the same species."

Dixon returned to Alaska, first in 1919, then again in 1926.  This expedition was also backed by Thayer.  This time Dixon took along a young Bay Area man, still an undergraduate in biology at U.C. Berkeley.  He was George Melendez Wright.  It was Wright who fulfilled Dixon's greatest dream-to find the nest of a Surfbird.  The coastal areas of Alaska had proven fruitless and Dixon had wisely chosen to look upland where the natives had long claimed the Surfbird could be found "in mosquito time."  The Surfbird was one of the last North American breeders to have its nesting habits discovered. 

On May 28, 1926, a thousand feet above timberline on Mount McKinley, George Wright found Surfbirds, and tracked one to its nest and eggs.  It was the first ever seen by a scientist.  Wright and Dixon watched the nest for over a day, taking photos and movie film.  They even saw the male Surfbird chase away a Dall's sheep that wandered too close.  Finally they killed the bird and took the eggs.  Those specimens are now in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, where all of Thayer's extensive collection went after his death in 1933. 

Dixon went on to a long career as a teacher; leaving U.C.  in 1931 he went to the Yosemite School of Field Natural History, run by the National Park Service.  Many of his Alaska observations and publications were cited by A. C. Bent.  Wright (1904-36) also worked for the park service in Yosemite.  With inherited money he paid for and organized the first wildlife surveys in U. S. national parks.  He was an early proponent of habitat and environmental restoration at a time when tame deer and bears were considered ideal.  He led the park service to protect endangered species and fragile habitat.  He was well known among the conservationists of his day.  While serving on the first international wildlife commission with Mexico, he was killed in an auto accident.  His pioneering work is carried on by the George Wright Society

So Thayer's legacy extends from Harvard to Berkeley to Alaska to the National Park Service and his expeditions added greatly to the depth of knowledge we now have about shorebirds breeding in Alaska.  All from a man who never saw California or the Pacific Coast of North America. 


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