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Jul
30

Some Political Dithering in Congress

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What’s new? you may ask. But you should rather ask, what’s old?

The readers of Bird-Lore a hundred one years ago were anxiously waiting for the Migratory Bird Treaty to be given effect.

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Jul
30

The Maw of a Kite

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red kite

The dashing and dramatic red kite was famous in the ancient and medieval world for its boldness: snatching the caps off people’s heads and, no doubt, pestering them for French fries in proto-parking lots.

red kite

At times, that audacity served the cause of justice, as Gregory of Tours tells us in his sixth-century Glories of the Saints Confessor:

A wine merchant in Lyon decided to inflate his profits by mixing his wares with water. He succeeded to no small extent, as he was selling water for wine. Once a boatman came down the Saône to market, his purse full of coins. To pay for a purchase, he took a coin out of the purse, which was made of unscraped leather. A kite flying overhead saw the purse and because it was still covered in hair, mistook it for a prey animal and flew down and grabbed it. The kite carried it high into the sky, but when it found that it would have no food from it — for kites eat meat, not air — it dropped its prey, which disappeared into the river where it could not be seen. The cheating wine merchant found this instructive, and acknowledging his guilt said tearfully, “I have sinned and now suffer for it; I accumulated wealth from water, but I see now that all wealth falls into the water and disappears.”

red kite

The kite went away hungry, the sailor impoverished — but the merchant was saved.

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Jul
29

Out and About With the Montclair Bird Club

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Photo Sanford Sorkin

I’ve been out twice recently with the Montclair Bird Club, always a fun group. Summer is a good time to explore local hotspots that don’t get birded much in the heat and haze, and we started ten days ago with a trip to Brookdale Park, a pleasant oasis straddling the Bloomfield / Montclair line.

Alison and Gellert

It was hot, it was humid, and I was delighted with the turnout: small as it was on a steamy weekday morning, I’d left the house that morning almost prepared to bird by myself. But our little party soldiered on together, filling in the only remaining gap in the eBird bar charts — Brookdale has now been birded every week of the year. (Obviously, someone sometime, and probably lots of someones lots of sometimes, had birded there the third week of July at some point in history, but more and more it seems not to count if it isn’t “ebirded.”)

I hadn’t expected a terribly birdy morning, and so we weren’t disappointed. Northern flickers gave an excellent show in one of the park’s remaining dead trees. American robins and European starlings were busy on the fields, and as the day grew brighter, barn swallows swooped in to keep us bug-free.

As usual at this season, the best birding was in the grove of big trees at the south end of the park. There were plenty of blue jays; one of the red-bellied woodpeckers there was a juvenile, proof that Brookdale’s commonest breeding woodpecker had brought off young again this year. Best of all, though, was what we heard just as I’d given up hope: a singing wood thrush, which we eventually saw beautifully on his perch in the woods. This species, present each summer in the park, is in every sense the most eloquent reminder of the importance of patches of faint wildness like this here in the megalopolis.

I’ll be leading another walk at Brookdale Park October 13. It’s free, but if you enjoy the park as much as I do, please consider joining the Conservancy, which does such good work to keep Brookdale such a welcoming place for people and wild things.

semipalmated sandpiper

If the turnout for our Brookdale outing was gratifying, yesterday’s was startling. We were a group of 22 at Mill Creek Marsh in Secaucus, the site every July of one of New Jersey’s most underappreciated natural spectacles. Each year, in the last couple of days of the month, the rising tide pushes hundreds and thousands of shorebirds — the vast majority of them adult semipalmated sandpipers — to the edges of the marsh and then onto the ancient stumps of the Atlantic white cedars, where they huddle in clumps before taking off in search of open mud elsewhere.

Photo Sally Poor

Our tally yesterday morning was 4600 semipalmateds, an impressive number but still 2000 shy of the expected high yet to come today or tomorrow or the next day. A single pectoral sandpiper was “good” for the date and locality, too. Among the bigger waders, a glossy ibis was a very nice surprise, and the earliest birders among us got to see a little blue heron pass over, too, the first adult of that species I’d seen at the marsh.

Marsh wrens, great and snowy egrets, Baltimore and orchard orioles, Forster terns, and just about every other expected bird species showed up and showed well for our group. We’ll do this trip again, too.

 

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Jul
22

Put a Bird on Her

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William Hole’s bizarre map of the Severn and its tributaries personifies the famous puffin island of Lundy as “a lusty black-browed girl with forehead broad and high / that often had bewitched the sea gods with her eye.” This nymph whose only joy it is to watch the birds that feed on her shores is, appropriately, crowned with one of them.

Michael Drayton, whose Poly Olbion the map illustrates, names only one species among the fowl breeding on the island: “the birds of Ganymed.”

I don’t know how many pairs of golden eagles bred on Lundy in the seventeenth century, but I’m guessing it wasn’t many — and that long-legged heronish kind of a thing just can’t be meant as one. No “umfangend umfangen” here, I’m afraid.

I suspect instead that Drayton confused the bird of Ganymede with the equally famous bird of Diomede.

Equally famous, but much more mysterious. While Linnaeus would fix the name Diomedea to the great albatrosses, by 1758 the birds in the myth had been identified with a wide variety of seabirds. Ovid says that they were like swans but not swans; Pliny seems to suggest that they resembled coots. Aldrovandi was confident that Venus had turned Acmon and his men into shearwaters. Cuvier believed that the birds were common shelducks. And Gurney, obsessed as he was with sulids, identifies the bird atop Lundy’s tresses as a northern gannet.

Me? I don’t know. But it looks like she’s having a hard time balancing it.

 

 

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Jul
19

Greater and Lesser Ripples

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greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs

Of all the ways to tell lesser and greater yellowlegses apart, one of the least appreciated is the difference in behavior. Greaters are violent and fast, rushing through the water like avocets, heads asway, while lessers are less frantic, picking and stepping high as they feed.

On a beautiful calm fall day like today, all you have to do is look for the ripples on the pond.

greater yellowlegs, lesser yellowlegs

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