2021: A Mock CBC

I didn’t think I’d do it. But I did it anyway.

On December 27, 1921, R. F. Haulenbeek walked from the Forest Hill section of Newark to Bloomfield. He was back home for lunch, and spent an hour in the late afternoon in Branch Brook Park. The weather was seasonable: clouds giving way to sun, with an inch of new snow on the ground and temperatures from 29° to 38° F. This single-observer effort covering about 10 miles constituted the Newark Christmas Bird Count, the only CBC conducted in Essex County that year.

Haulenbeek recorded eight species for the day. The most abundant bird he encountered was the European starling; the species had arrived in our area only in 1903, but even then it was obviously on the path to success, as the day’s tally of some 100 birds suggested.

More surprising was the species that occupied second place on the list, the horned lark. Haulenbeek found some 50 larks on the farm fields along his morning’s route—fields, and larks, that are long gone today. The list was fleshed out by white-throated, song, and American tree sparrows, and one each of the sharp-shinned hawk, slate-colored junco, and blue jay. The total individuals counted came to about 167 birds.

On December 27, 2021, I walked from the southern edge of Branch Brook Park to Bloomfield. I was back home for lunch. The weather was seasonable: clouds and the occasional patch of sun, with very light snow at mid-day and temperatures from 28° to 37° F. I was joined for part of the morning by Alison; all told, I covered just shy of 10 miles on foot in the course of this mock CBC.

I recorded 24 species for the day. The most abundant bird was the Canada goose, with 60% of the approximately 1000 total birds at Clarks Pond; most appeared to be genuinely Canadian, migratory birds of the canadensis/interior type, but of course, most flocks also contained giant geese, the descendants of maxima/moffitti Canadasintroduced to the eastern US sixty years ago.

Unsurprisingly, the commonest passerine was the European starling, still going strong a century and a quarter after it colonized New Jersey. The small selection of native songbirds we found was dominated by white-throated sparrows; a minimum of 134 were seen and heard, most of them in a single active flock in Branch Brook Park.

The only other species to reach double digits were the mallard, at an impresive 330 individuals, and the feral pigeon, with a sloppily counted 249 on the day’s list; I suspect that Haulenbeek did not bother keeping track of the pigeons on the barn roofs along his 1921 route.

Several species on my list would have startled the observer 100 years ago. I most likely undercounted mourning doves, recording only 71—but early last century, this was apparently a rare bird in Essex County, and one very active birder, Louis S. Kohler of Bloomfield, recorded only ten individuals between 1905 and 1910, all of them migrants. Writing in that latter year, Kohler did not list the hooded merganser at all for Essex County; the four on one of the ponds in Branch Brook Park in 2021 were unsurprising, as were the 38 northern shovelers there, also a species Kohler did not encounter in our area. Our 17 ring-billed gulls struck me as a poor showing for that species, an abundant and familiar bird unnoticed by Kohler. 

Among the highlights of our 2021 count were the two peregrine falcons that dashed through Branch Brook Park at the start of the walk; one was an adult and probably a female, the other too fast to age or sex. This dramatic bird is probably more common in New Jersey today than at any time in history.    As expected, we were unable to replicate the experiences of birders a century ago, for whom another falcon, the American kestrel, was a common permanent resident in Essex County. 

Three classic “southern” species were also unknown in our area a hundred years ago. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, northern cardinals were rare in New Jersey anywhere north of southern Union County. Their abundance today, even in suburban backyards, is the result of what John Bull called a “positively phenomenal” increase and northward range expansion beginning in the 1950s. Northern mockingbirds were only erratic visitors to Essex County until the late 1950s, when their populations, too, exploded and birds moved in to areas where they had formerly been rare. And as late as 1937, Witmer Stone considered the red-bellied woodpecker nothing more than “an accidental straggler,” even in southern New Jersey; as of 1955, Fables knew of only three records from the northern part of the state. Today, the red-bellied has nearly vanquished the downy as the most abundant picid in our area. 

The story of the house finch in northern New Jersey is less clearly linked to global warming, though the survival and success of the birds released in New York in the early 1940s was certainly not entirely independent of changes in the climate. This early winter of 2021, it seems that there is still wild food available for house finches in our area—asters, goldenrod, poison ivy, liquidambar—and few are being seen yet in urban habitats. All the same, it is virtually impossible not to see or hear this bird almost anywhere in Bloomfield or Newark now, a species undreamed of by our co-hobbyists a hundred years ago. 

A century to the day after R. F. Haulenbeek conducted his Christmas Bird Count, we saw approximately 13 times as many individual birds as he did. Even removing the waterfowl and feral pigeons, our count exceeded his by a good 500 bird—small consolation for encountering not a single one of the descendants of the horned larks on any of the parking lots and golf courses that have replaced the pastures and fields of an earlier landscape. But comparisons are always invidious. What matters—what counts—is enjoying a walk on a cold winter’s day.


The 1921 CBC

One hundred years ago today, Raymond F. Haulenbeek walked ten miles between Newark and Bloomfield as his contribution to the 22nd Christmas Bird Count.

I wouldn’t try it today. If the map above doesn’t convince you that the area has changed, then Haulenbeek’s bird list will: the “about 50” horned larks he tallied were hardly unusual on the farm fields and pastures along his route, but today I’d count myself lucky to hear a single bird high overhead on its winter way to the coastal beaches to our south and east.

But I’d certainly find more mockingbirds and titmice and cardinals.


The Advent Bird

Remember all those observant birds forming their pair bonds on January 22? One species, the common loon, performs an even more impressive calendrical feat:

While our birds [in central Europe] have had to adjust to the new calendar only once, and have moved their wedding date each year ahead to a single, immoveable day, the immer birds [common loons] of Norway can distinguish the fourth Sunday of Advent from any other day, and this is the only day when they can be found on land.

As a result, the Norwegians call that Sunday “Immer Sunday” or “Ommer Sunday.” And the German natural historian Philipp Ludwig Statius Müller was so impressed with the story that he named the loon Colymbus immer, the Advent bird.

Merry Christmas!


Red, or Reddish?

Or, perhaps, neither.

Yes, this is a gorgeous reddish egret, in south Texas last week during one of the field trips at VENT‘s 45th Anniversary Celebration, based in McAllen. And yes, we spent some very rewarding time discussing the identification of this and the other white herons of the area. It can be subtle, but I think the fine studies we had left everyone feeling more confident about picking a white reddish out from a swarm of late summer egrets.

But pondering this bird, or any bird, raises questions beyond the details of identification. Two occurred to me on the drive back to McAllen, and I’ll try to answer one of them here.

To wit: How, why, and by whom was the scientific name of this bird changed from rufa to rufescens? There should be a straightforward and unexciting answer, but in this case, the process—or rather, the apparent absence of process—offers a quick glimpse into the quiet workings behind the scenes in the early days of the American Ornithologists’ Union and its Check-list.

The first edition of the Check-list names the bird Ardea rufa, crediting the name to Pieter Boddaert’s key to the Planches enluminéez produced to illustrate Buffon’s HIstoire naturelle. Boddaert often gets bad press for having swooped in to assign Linnaean binomials to the birds Buffon and his collaborators identified only in French, but without him (and Klein, and Temminck, and the Catalogue of Birds in the British Museum), those 1008 plates would be even more unwieldy for the modern user than they already are.

In any case, Boddaert gave Buffon’s “Aigrette rousse” from Louisiana the scientific name Arda rufa, and he left no doubt as to the author of that name: “mihi,” “mine.” The type specimen, so to speak, of the newly christened species is the bird depicted by Martinet on the 902nd plate of the Planches enluminées:

There can be no doubt that the bird Martinet painted was a reddish egret, right down to the bicolored bill and the odd bristly feathers of the head and neck. But there is a problem: Boddaert’s name rufa had been used before, by Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (him of shearwater fame), who in 1769 assigned it to a bird in his personal collection.

Scopoli’s diagnosis of the species is vague enough to suit any of a number of heron species, but the fuller description includes a white head stripe and a whitish lower neck with yellow-brown streaks. The cited passage from Wilhelm Heinrich Kramer’s Elenchus only deepens our uncertainty:

Not only is Kramer’s bird characterized by entirely pearl-white under parts and a brown-streaked neck, it has an Austrian vernacular name, Mittere Moos-Kuh, the mid-sized bittern (“fen cow”). This cannot possibly be a reddish egret, a species known only from the American tropics.

Nevertheless, on the strength of Boddaert’s reliance on Martinet’s plate, the name rufa was attached to the reddish egret, and it survived to be taken over by the AOU a hundred years later. (Kramer cannot be the author of the name because the Elenchus is not binomial in the sections dealing with birds and other animals.) In the second edition of the Check-list, though, something changes.

The scientific name has gone from rufa to rufescens, and the authority for the name is no longer Boddaert but Johann Friedrich Gmelin, the author/editor of the thirteenth, posthumous edition of Linnaeus’s Systema naturae.

Gmelin’s diagnosis is accurate and appropriate, and he even hints at the odd shape and structure of the feathers of the head and neck (“rather long and narrow”). He also cites as the first work in the brief synonymy the same plate and text from Buffon as had Boddaert.

Boddaert’s name, published in 1783, enjoys chronological priority over Gmelin’s, which did not appear for another five years. But the problem with rufa, obviously, is that it was itself preoccupied by Scopoli’s, who, equally obviously, had applied it to another species, most likely the purple heron. Replacing it with rufescens, as the AOU did in the second Check-list, should have been a routine matter chronicled in one of the Supplements—but I find no mention of this name change in any of them published before the appearance of the second edition, in 1895. Instead, rufa became rufescens without notice, simply popping up in the 1895 edition without having been introduced in any intervening AOU publication.

How exactly that happened isn’t clear from the sources available to me, but I have a suspicion.

The first clear statement of the problem was published by Robert Ridgway in 1887, in the Appendix to his Manual: Because the name Ardea rufa is preocuppied (by Scopoli, 1769) for another species [generally identified as the purple heron, Ardea purpurea], it becomes necessary to substitute the next in order of date . . . . Ardea rufescens Gmel.”

Ridgway was right, as (what strike me now on rereading as) my (rather labored) notes above affirm. He was also, of course, a member of the committees in charge of producing the first and the second editions of the Check-list. Naturally his discovery and the name change that followed from it were accepted and incorporated into the new edition, without public comment. If it were today, the change would have been formally proposed and voted on, and the result would appear in a Supplement before its eventual publication in the next edition of the Check-list.

A hundred thirty-five years ago it was different. The committee, and mutatis mutandis the AOU itself, could function as a small group of well-connected men who, for the most part (Elliott Coues was part of the gang, too), respected each other’s opinions so greatly that they found it unnecessary to fill anyone else in before the fait was accompli. It’s just a little glimpse, but a telling one, into the earliest days of an organization that still had a lot of democratization ahead of it.