Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

October 21: Lecture for Delmarva Ornithological Society.

November 9: Lecture for Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club.

November 11: Lecture for Montclair Bird Club.

December 5: Lecture and book-signing at Wild Birds Unlimited, Paramus.

March 3, 2016: Lecture for Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

March 12-16: New Mexico field trip with Linnaean Society of New York.

March 19-26: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

April 14-22: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

April 24 – May 2: Birds and Art in Provence.

May 24: “How — and Why — To Start Birding,” a lecture for North Shore Audubon Society.

May 29 – June 4: Birds and Art in Burgundy.

August 3-6: Lecture and field trips for Southwest Wings.

September 30 – October 8: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

October 24 – November 1: Birds and Art in Venice and the Po Delta.


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The Thrasher Lives

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Toxostoma redivivum -Morro Bay, California, USA-8.jpg
Mike Baird, Wikimedia Commons

I need to spend more time birding California. Except for the gnatcatcher and the blasted mountain quail, I’ve been fortunate enough to see all of the state’s terrestrial specialties — but many of them, like the dark and lovely California thrasher, only a few times.

Among its other attractions, this sturdy earth-scratcher has one of the oddest scientific names ever assigned a North American bird. After a few changes of genus, the thrasher is now known formally as Toxostoma redivivum, the revivified sickle-bill.

Toxostoma, and the original generic name Harpes, are both straightforward enough. But why did this bird require resurrection?

When William Gambel named this species in 1845, he recognized in it a bird drawn by J.R. Prévost, Jr., for the report of the voyage commanded by the comte de La Pérouse, a hero of the American Revolution. La Pérouse and his expedition were in Monterey in September of 1786, when they shot and stuffed what they believed was an unknown Promerops, a sunbird.

Screenshot 2015-10-12 10.00.29

Another expedition, that of Alejandro Malaspina in the early 1790s, returned to Spain with a painting of the species — but no clue to the identity of what they called simply the unknown bird.

Screenshot 2015-10-12 10.46.16

In confirming the bird’s existence half a century later, Gambel fulfilled the hopes expressed by Louis-Pierre Vieillot and John Latham

that some future Naturalist may elucidate more fully what La Peyrouse has given a very imperfect description of.

Not everyone was sure that Gambel had actually revived the bird of the earlier explorers. John Cassin wrote that

whether it is the fact … that the figure in La Peyrouse represents the present bird, admits of some doubt,

and suggested that the French might instead have collected specimens of the curve-billed thrasher — a bird, of course, that is extremely rare anywhere in California, and improbable to the point of virtually impossible at Monterey.

Far easier to believe that Gambel was right, and that his collectors had in fact rediscovered the thrasher of La Pérouse. True or not, it makes a good story.

Even if it’s not a sunbird.

Screenshot 2015-10-12 11.12.14


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The Long Way Around

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eastern wood-pewee

At this season, every eastern wood-pewee — like this on in Brookdale Park early yesterday morning — could be the last of the year at our latitude.

I’ve been birding long enough that the name seems “normal” to me, but new birders and non-birders find it amusing that there is a tiny bird named “pewee.” And so we explain: in the summer, this flycatcher sings its pee-a-wee over and over and over. Aha. Everything’s clear.

This isn’t the only explanation floating around for the name, though. Two hundred years ago, Louis-Pierre Vieillot had another theory:

The name “pewit” given to this bird by the Americans comes from the fact that when it ruffles the feathers of its head, it appears to be adorned with a sort of crest,

a crest distantly recalling that of the original pewit, the northern lapwing.

I suppose.


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Being Stupid, Being Wrong

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palm warbler

They’re not always the same thing. They’re not even usually the same thing. It’s devastatingly easy to get something wrong in the smartest possible way. Take the name of the pretty little bird in the photograph, for example.

For forty years now (!), I’ve been hearing how stupid the name “palm warbler” is for a bird that breeds in bogs and then paces off lawns and fields on chilly October days.

The name is wrong, maybe, if any member of the category of nouns we call names can be “wrong,” in commemorating only one stage in this warbler’s life history — the six or seven months it spends on the wintering grounds each year, where, yes, palm warblers can once in a while be seen in palms.  

Gmelin 1.2: 951

John Latham coined the English name in reliance on notes submitted to Buffon by the members of the Cercle des Philadelphes in St-Domingue. Etienne Lefevre-Deshayes, the club’s official correspondent, even sent a colored drawing of the new bird, which was known in the colony as the “false linnet” or the “bimbelé.”

The Philadelphians reported that this warbler frequented palm trees, placing its nest atop the broad, flat petioles where they sprouted from the trunk.  

That was wrong. But it wasn’t stupid: with no field guides, no binoculars, no preconceptions, the observers of the mid-eighteenth century did their best — and made mistakes.

It was even less stupid for Buffon and his collaborators to take the colonists at the word, and even less stupid for Latham to place his confidence in what he read in Buffon, and even less stupid for Gmelin to assign the bird a latinizing binomial based on what he found in Buffon and Latham. 

They were wrong, all of them. But to call any of them stupid would be … not right.

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Just too wet and windy, I’m afraid.

But we’ll assemble Wednesday morning at 7:30 in the parking lot; the weather is supposed to be perfect for fall migrants.

See you then.

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