Archive for Birding New Jersey
Owls: Prophets of Woe and Mischance
Bloomfield Public Library Little Theater
90 Broad Street, Bloomfield, NJ
August 20, 6:00 pm
They’re as mysterious as they are engaging, and even today owls still haven’t given up all their secrets. What we do know about these oddly shaped and eerily vocal denizens of the night is the product of centuries of study and speculation. Join Rick Wright for a look at the legend and lore of the owl, and at the scientists—some of them working right here in New Jersey—who pieced together the realities of an owl’s life, realities often no less weird than the myths.
Free and open to the public; registration requested
A downy woodpecker spent most of the day yesterday throwing wood chips and sawdust out of its neat new roost hole in our backyard; apparently the results were satisfactory, as the bird is in there this morning, looking smugly out at the rest of the world.
And there’s a lot of world for it to look at. Over just a few minutes this morning, the new cavity was investigated by black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches, and a second downy woodpecker; the new homeowner drove them all away with threatening movements of the head, though I didn’t see any actual contact made with that sturdy little bill.
This should be fun to watch as the autumn proceeds.
One of the truly great things about living in New Jersey is the depth and continuity of the birding tradition. From William Bartram through Wilson, Audubon, and Bonaparte, there is an unbroken line of intellectual descent from the earliest birders right down to, well, you and me.
Not all of our forebears are so renowned, of course. It’s humbling and exhilarating to walk in the footsteps of the giants. But we are also, every day, retracing the paths of birders hardly anyone alive has ever heard of — and it’s especially exciting when you discover that one of those forgotten nobodies was your neighbor, and was far from a nobody, and deserves a little remembering.
Clarence B. Riker is still well known, at least in name, to entomologists, but a casual poll of my birding colleagues here in northern New Jersey came up blank.
Riker, born in November 1863, met Frank Chapman when both were about 19. Chapman would later write in his Autobiography that
Riker was my age, but he had more initiative… and in the summer of 1884 procured leave from the shipping firm by which he was employed and went up the Amazon as far as Santarem. In 1887 he repeated the trip.
The results of those youthful expeditions were published in a series of articles in the Auk, describing some 400 bird skins Riker had brought back to his home in Maplewood, New Jersey. Among the specimens from Riker‘s first visit to the Neotropics, collected 125 years ago today, was a bizarre furnariid, an adult male
of very striking appearance … entirely different in coloration from any Dendrocolaptine bird….
In 1886, Robert Ridgway described Riker’s bird as a new species, Picolaptes rikeri, thanking the collector:
The type specimen, the only one obtained, was kindly presented to the National Museum by Mr. C.B. Riker … after whom I take pleasure in naming it.
We know it today as the point-tailed palmcreeper. With the erection of the new genus Berlepschia by Ridgway in 1887, this became one of the relatively few birds to bear the names of two ornithologists — one of whom lived just a few miles south of us here in New Jersey.
A quarter of a century later, Ridgway was still working through Riker’s Santarem material. As he wrote in 1912, a nunbird our New Jersey colleague collected on June 30, 1887, had
hitherto been referred to M. morphoeus [the white-fronted nunbird] of eastern Brazil, but is decidedly smaller and differs further in the black instead of white malar apex.
Ridgway’s analysis of the Riker specimen and five others led him to describe a new species of nunbird, Monasa rikeri, named, obviously, for the collector of the type.
Unlike the palmcreeper, Riker’s nunbird has not stood the test of taxonomic time, lumped once again with just the “normal” white-fronted nunbird of the nominate race.
Whether that bothered Riker at all I don’t know. My impression, fair or not, is that his ornithological field work ended once he discovered butterflies — a common and lamentable fate still today — but he did continue to provide the AOU his expertise in a different field, as Investment Trustee, a task he performed from the comfortable surroundings of his Kip-Riker Mansion in South Orange.
As we bird the fields and marshes and woodlands of northern New Jersey, we can’t realistically hope to have birds named after us. But we can find some inspiration in remembering our intellectual ancestors and the birds they watched — and the birds they discovered — more than a century ago, here and in the still wild wilds of South America.
I tagged along on Dan and David’s Brookdale Park walk this morning, curious to see what it was like as the annual Joldrums descend on New Jersey’s woodlands. And it was pretty much as you’d expect: the odd eastern wood-pewee whining from the treetops, blue jays slipping through the foliage, chimney swifts and barn swallows hunting the skies. Very pleasant, very enjoyable, but not overly birdy.
The big find of the morning, for me at least, was this enormous silk moth, a polyphemus, if my primitive picture-matching led me aright. Now to see a live one sometime!
(Anybody else think of Annie Dillard with a shiver?)
Shorebirding at Brigantine was fun this afternoon — as always. The rarity highlight was certainly the alternate-plumaged Hudsonian godwit at the end of the day (too far for pictures), but I was just as happy to see my first western sandpipers for the fall, a dozen birds scattered among the semipalmated and least sandpipers.
Who could fail to love these beautiful Arctic wanderers?