Two Thanksgivings ago, Hawaii’s first Snowy Owl was shot in Honolulu, just one of the hundreds and thousands of birds of the species that poured in across the western portions of North America that winter.
This year, to my New Jersey delight, the incursion is heaviest here in the Northeast, and once again some birds — impossible to know how many — have opted for the water route. One has even made it as far as Bermuda, and Nate reports that a bird that landed on a ship out of Delaware is, even as we write, on its way to Antwerp, perched happily (one hopes) atop the containers on the deck of the Independent Concept.
One hundred seventy five years ago, Captain McKechnie of the ship John and Robert made some even more startling observations of pelagic Snowy Owls. The ship left Québec in early November 1838, reaching Belfast a month later:
The vessel was about 250 miles from the straits of Bellisle, or the S.E. point of Labrador, when these Owls first appeared, but sailing eastward, was on the day they were last seen about 740 miles distant from them and 480 miles from the southern extremity of Greenland….
The numbers involved were nothing short of awesome:
Owls first appeared on November 16, “to the number of about thirty or forty,” and two days later, the captain recorded
great numbers of Owls, about fifty or sixty [!], flying about and alighting on the rigging.
Just close your eyes and imagine:
the migration of these Owls [was] an extremely beautiful sight…. Sometimes they kept flying about the vessel without alighting, and again there would be one or two on every yard-arm, with others hovering just above; on alighting, they fell asleep….
The drowsy birds were easily captured, and three specimens, two males and a female, were brought alive to Belfast, where they were acquired by the naturalist William Thompson, who kept them
in a spacious garden containing any fruit trees, [the birds] never perch upon them, but remain constantly on the ground … greatly to the disadvantage of their appearance.
I would imagine so.
The first issue of The Oölogist for 1881 started out with a series of corrections, “as it is extremely desirable that our collectors should make no mistakes.”
They shouldn’t, but they did: the corrigenda listed here include a report of two nests and eggs of the Brant from Michigan; the account of Great Gray Owls breeding in Virginia; and a record of three “slightly incubated” clutches of Yellow-billed Magpie eggs taken in Colorado.
More than doubtful, but they had all passed the scrutiny of the journal’s editor, Joseph M. Wade. Over at the Smithsonian, Robert Ridgway was more vigilant, and he wrote Wade privately on December 6, 1880, to point out how “astounding” such reports were:
there is quite certainly some mistake, which should be corrected.
Wade dutifully published an excerpt of Ridgway’s note the next month. Here is the full text of the letter:
Letting ten days pass before answering a letter seems a venial trespass to me. Ridgway’s mention of his being “extremely busy” seems to be the sort of thing most of us say most of the time, but in this case, we know — thanks to Dan Lewis’s excellent Feathery Tribe — that the year had been an especially frustrating one for the ornithologist.
Ridgway’s first major work as an illustrator had been on the first three volumes of the … History of North American Birds…. when he was then asked in 1880 to hand color the plates for the projected last two volumes, he exploded [to Spencer Baird]…. ‘It seems to me hard to expect one who (excepting yourself) had by far the greatest labor to perform in the preparation of the work and this in the midst of engrossing duties, to thrive upon the rather barren honor of authorship…’ [Lewis 55]
Of course, Ridgway kept such details to himself in his polite note to Wade. But it is still a measure of his concern for accuracy and the amateur that he took time from his museum work, his painting and writing, to nudge North American birding along just one little step more.
As if there were still any doubt, it’s become apparent that this is a “good fall” in New York and New Jersey for the infinitely appealing Snowy Owl. This past weekend saw single-party single-day tallies of half a dozen or more at the usual coastal sites, from Long Island to Stone Harbor, and I’m eager to hear what the cumulative total of individuals is up to — and to see how many more drift down our way.
Whenever I hear reports of this species from our part of the world, I recall the slightly spoilsport words of John Bull in his edition of the Birds of the New York Area.
Present-day observers who see from one to six in a day’s trip on Long Island and call it a “big” flight should bear in mind that their counts are insignificant when compared with the … flights
of 1890-9 1 and 1926-27.
During the former flight at least 20 were shot at Montauk alone in a two-week period prior to December 6, and over 70 were shot on eastern Long Island between November 24 and December 12.
The 1926 flight was even more impressive:
40 were killed on Fisher’s Island alone in November and December, and a single taxidermist received 36 additional birds from eastern Long Island. At Long Beach, eight were shot on the morning of December 5, and at least 75 more were shot elsewhere in the New York City region.
Shot, of course, because they were big and white and weird and tame — no better reason than that.
New York’s total for that flight was 495 birds seen or collected; interestingly, New Jersey had only 15, a number we’re certain to exceed this time around. Maine had nearly 600 individuals, 82 of which are seen in this spectacularly macabre photograph of the Bangor shop of Fred C.N. Parke:
In general, I think this winter’s snowies will find a friendlier reception. Hope so, at least.
You’d have to be pretty oblivious not to know about this fall’s “invasion” of Snowy Owls into New York and New Jersey. Its timing thus far has been almost identical to that of the legendary (but very real) incursion of 1926 — we’ll just have to wait to see whether the numbers rise to those almost incredible levels.
The comparison between this year and that will soon be commonplace, I’m sure, and I hope that it serves to remind us of something most of us have forgot.
That same December of 1926 — December 19, to be exact — also brought a Northern Hawk Owl to central New Jersey. (My photograph is from coastal British Columbia, and represents a full fifty percent of the hawk owls I’ve seen in my life.)
Maybe this is the year for another.
Audubon’s famous Fork-tailed Flycatcher, collected in New Jersey in June 1832, gets all the press.
But that wasn’t the first fork-tail recorded in the US — or even, amazingly enough, the first for New Jersey.
Sometime before 1825 — the usual date in the secondary literature seems to be “around 1820,” while Boyle gives “around 1812″ –
a beautiful male, in full plumage … was shot near Bridgetown, New-Jersey, at the extraordinary season of the first week in December, and was presented by Mr. J. Woodcraft, of that town, to Mr. Titian Peale, who favoured me with the opportunity of examining it.
When James Bond set out, almost 75 years ago now, to determine the subspecific identity of US Fork-tailed Flycatchers, he was unable to locate any of the specimens taken before 1834, “if any exist.” But even absent a skin, Bonaparte’s detailed description of the Bridgeton bird allows us to pin it down almost 200 years later:
… the three outer [primaries] have a very extraordinary and profound sinus or notch on their inner webs, near the tip, so as to terminate in a slender process.
That is enough, according to Zimmer, to identify the Woodcraft specimen as a member of the subspecies savana (then known as tyrannus).
That austral migrant, abundant in its range, is responsible for almost all northerly records of this species, though Zimmer identified one New Jersey specimen, of unknown date and locality, as sanctaemartae (a determination adjudged only “possible” by Pyle).
To Bonaparte, it was “evident” that his specimen “must have strayed from its native country under the influence of extraordinary circumstances.”
That’s for sure.