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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

December 6: Book signing at Wild Birds Unlimited, Paramus.

February 11: Lecture for the Montclair Bird Club.

February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.

February 19: Lecture and book signing for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.

March 13-18: Birding southeast Arizona with the Linnaean Society of New York.

March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.

March 31: Lecture for the New York City Audubon Society.

April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.

May 11-15: Lecture and field trip for Biggest Week in American Birding.

August 14: Lecture at the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.


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An Odd Sparrow

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unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

A cool day in late November — especially a cool day in late November with cold and big snows predicted for the next day — is perfect for spending a little time with the backyard sparrows. The roster Tuesday morning was pretty much what was expected in northern New Jersey: lots of slate-colored juncos and white-throated sparrows, with the odd chipping, song, and fox sparrow to liven things up.

One bird, this bird, stood out in the feeder flock.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

It was more than superficially junco-like, with a dull gray hood, white belly, and pink bill, but the pattern and color of the underparts were off. The dull olive-tan of the breast sides and flanks seemed wrong for not just for a slate-colored but for any junco, and the color reached quite far in towards the vent in a wide band, almost isolating the white undertail coverts. At some angles, the bird seemed to show a “color corner” between the hood and the breast sides, but at others just the usual smudgy blend shown by brown, immature or female, slate-colored juncos. Some of the rear flank feathers seemed to have very fine, just barely visible dark shaft streaks.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

A closer look revealed a couple of other oddities. The ground color of the back seemed unexceptional, but its neat pattern of prominent but fine black streaks was worth a second look.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

A bit of faint, diffuse streaking isn’t all that unusual in brown juncos this time of year, but these markings — darker in life than in the photos I took through my dirty window — struck me as beyond the pale.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

I have no good, tightly-focused images of the wing pattern, but the one above at least gives a hint of the inconspicuous dotted wing bars; the tips of the median coverts weren’t always even this visible, but several of the greaters on each wing showed very small white triangular tips, creating a short, jagged “droplet” wing bar on the gray wing.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

The bird’s tertials seemed more or less normal, with the typical broad buffy edgings of brown slate-colored juncos, if perhaps just a little more white towards the tip of the outer web than most.

While the other juncos were setting off their feathered flash bulbs all around the yard, this bird kept its tail resolutely folded. Though I could never contort myself into a position from which I could see the underside of the tail, I eventually had several reasonable if brief looks at the bird in flight, when it showed no white in the outer rectrices. Given my split-second view of the bird as it dashed into the arborvitae, I’d be hard pressed to prove that it actually even had all of its rectrices, but the ones I could see were dark.

With the growing suspicion that this might be a bird of mixed ancestry (put that way, which bird is not?), I worked hard to imagine the shadow of a face or throat pattern. The hood seemed unremarkably gray, with some dull rusty shading and streaking at some angles. There was an occasionally noticeable paler patch on each side of the neck beneath the auriculars, a feature shown by many brown slate-colored juncos.

The strangest thing about the bird’s head plumage was the area around the eye. The lore was decidedly blacker than the rest of the already dark head, no big deal in a slate-colored junco, but that color continued back to surround the eye and to end in an odd broad point behind it.

The bird was minutely larger than some of the other juncos in the flock, but still obviously much smaller than the white-throated sparrows.

If this is not just an even weirder than usual junco, what might it be? There are numerous records and reports of apparent hybrids between slate-colored juncos and white-throated sparrows, among them the winter birds well photographed and well described by Mark Szantyr a few years ago in Connecticut.

Nearly all of the documented individuals assigned to this hybrid combination are obviously, conspicuously intermediate in appearance, combining a white throat and lore with a gray breast and head. Some are more subtly marked, such as the one photographed by Szantyr and almost entirely junco-like but for a single brown, white-tipped greater covert. And surely others, perhaps the majority of them, are even more cryptically clad, indiscernible to humans and maybe even to their flock mates.

If in fact this odd sparrow was a hybrid or introgressant, I’m not sure we can tell with any real certainty which species might be lurking in its family tree. To my eye, the very fine back pattern and incomplete vent strap immediately suggested not a Zonotrichia but rather a Lincoln’s sparrow, but we will probably never know.

We’ll probably never know. But it’s always fun to look close; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t bother looking at all.


Happy Thanksgiving!

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A fine wild turkey from François-Nicolas Martinet’s Ornithologie.

Screenshot 2014-11-24 17.29.35

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Follow Your Nose

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I have nothing but admiration, verging indeed on awe, for those birders out there on the frontiers of identification by sound. Distinguishing the nocturnal calls of the Spizella sparrows or sorting through the flight notes of the warblers, there’s nothing these pioneers aren’t working out.

Predictably, some birders are already looking for the next cutting edge. Maybe they’ll find inspiration in a story from a long-ago autumn day on New York’s Jones Beach:

On November 7, 1948, walking along the high water line at Jones Beach, a rather large (14.75 inches) primary feather was noticed.* Picked up and passed close to the nostrils it appeared to have the characteristic odor of the Tubinares.

The feather made its way to the desk of Robert Cushman Murphy at the American Museum, who wrote on November 26 to say that the feather was “beyond any shadow of doubt that of an albatross…. It most closely resembles Diomedea chlororhynchus,” the bird we now know as the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross.

The finder, David G. Nichols, pointed out the obvious lesson:

When one considers that the strong odor is the only reason that this feather was originally collected and identified, one is moved to speculate that similarly interesting plumage may occur along the beaches more frequently than is supposed. Drifted feathers might be worth some attention.

Just follow your nose.

Great black-backed gull

Just a great black-backed gull this time, and no, I didn’t stop to sniff.

* Apparently the feather walked to Long Island.

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Sometimes when you cast the bread of your ponderings onto the waters of the internet, you find it after a couple of weeks. 

And how.

I wondered whether the comparison of a kingfisher’s call to the watchman’s rattle had in fact originated with Alexander Wilson. My friend and colleague Mark writes in reply:

“I’m sure you’re right that Wilson was the source for most later descriptions of the kingfisher’s call. But perhaps not all?

“Today the watchman’s rattle seems like such a bizarre antediluvian relic that it’s hard for us to appreciate just how ubiquitous and distinctive a feature of the 19th-century soundscape it was, and how easy it would have been for different writers to seize upon it independently as a point of comparison for any sharp grating or rattling noise. It’s impossible to read much Victorian literature without encountering the rattle (“Wegg was a knotty man, and close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle” — Dickens, Our Mutual Friend), but your post made me curious about other instances in which the calls of birds and other animals were likened to it.

“So I poked around on Google Books for half an hour or so, and wow, there are a lot of them! Since you I say you’re interested in other examples of the simile, I thought you might like to see a sample of what I turned up. (I’ve omitted all the kingfishers, of which there were many, most or all of which were probably derived from Wilson; I didn’t find any earlier example of that particular comparison, so your conclusion about his priority still stands.)

J. Jackson, Journey from India towards England (1799), p. 116



W. Wordsworth, early draft ms. of “Benjamin the Waggoner” (1806)

photo of the actual page is available at the British Library; it’s the fifth page.


J. C. Hobhouse, A Journey to Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Asia (1813), vol. 2, p. 641


G. Ord, in the Journal of the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences 1:2 (1818), p. 256



R. Sheppard and W. Whitear, in Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London 15 (1827), p. 15


J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 158

J. Richardson, Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), p. 187


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 551


T. Nuttall, Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and Canada (1832), p. 563


New-England Magazine 2 (1832), p. 329


E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States (1835), vol. 2, p. 215


H. D. Thoreau, journal entry for April 4, 1853


H. Wheelwright, Bush Wanderings of a Naturalist (1861), p. 151


Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine 46 (1878), p. 177


F. Knight, By Leafy Ways (1889), p. 4


O. T. Miller, Atlantic Monthly 77 (May 1896), p. 671


“Along the way I also found the watchman’s rattle invoked to describe the sputtering of an angry Frenchman, the crackling of hot liquids, and all sorts of other things. Fun stuff!”

Fun stuff indeed. Many thanks to a kindred spirit for answering my question! 

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Mademoiselle from Pontonx

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Thomas Dearborn Burleigh, born 119 years ago today, spent his war months near Pontonx, in southwestern Aquitaine. Already he was “what might have been called a compulsive collector,” but, as he recalled in 1919 on his return to Pittsburgh,

owing to working six days a week and drilling the seventh, ornithology was temporarily neglected.

Eventually, though, Burleigh found time to start robbing the nests of the local birds: a barn swallow clutch here, a green woodpecker nest there, even two nightjar eggs in June 1918, taken from “a slashing in the woods.”

Green Woodpecker Bulgaria 2007 June

Eggs, it seemed, were easy enough to come by. But the collecting was

the least of my difficulties for there still remained the necessity of blowing them and making good specimens of them. I pondered long over this matter and in the end succeeded beyond my modest expectations.

Burleigh’s pipe stem served him well as a blow pipe. And to make the hole? He found that he could use

a hat pin as a drill, concerning which no personal questions will be answered.


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