Archive for Birding New Jersey


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.


The Freckled Heron of Sandy Hook

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American bittern

To say that Joan and I had an enjoyable day yesterday would be accurate but just a mite misleading, suggesting as it might that there can be any other kind of birding day at Sandy Hook in late October. In fact, they’re all good at that marvelous site in this wondrous season. But not all begin, as ours did yesterday, with a fine American bittern flushing from the spartina and landing in the open, where we left it, no doubt still thinking itself invisible, after long admiration.

Every time I see this species, which is never often enough, I smile at the circumstances of its discovery. Like the ring-necked duck, this big brown heron is an American endemic as a breeder — but the type locality of the species is in Europe, in the delightfully named Piddleton, England, where the first specimen known to science was “rescued by accident from oblivion” nearly a decade after it had been shot by a pheasant hunter.

Formal description of American bittern

George Montagu, who in 1813 first named and described our bird, tells us that a certain Mr. Cunningham encountered the type specimen

in the autumn of 1804…. between the broad ditches of some rich water meadows, about half a mile distant from the river Froome… and he shot it.

Cunningham, believing that his prize was a mere great bittern,

sent it to Colonel George, of Penryn in Cornwall, who at that time was making a collection of birds.

George — otherwise known as a local conchologist — had the bird “badly prepared by a foreigner” and, inexplicably, labeled it as a little bittern. When George’s collections were sold, Montagu purchased the mount:

Our astonishment was very considerable at receiving this bird for the Little Bittern, to which it is no ways allied either in size or colour…. we are not surprised that a sportsman should be mistaken in supposing it to be the Common Bittern,

but to the eyes of the specialist, it was immediately clear to Montagu that he had before him

an extremely rare and unknown bird in England, and apparently a nondescript.

Montagu 1813 Supplement, American bittern

Montagu named this new bird Ardea lentiginosa, the freckled heron. Interestingly, in 1813 he still seems to have harbored some mild doubt about whether his “nondescript” was truly new:

we are at present unable to refer this bird to any known species, and yet it is probably a female of some one already described.

That admission of uncertainty almost doomed the name lentiginosa to obscurity. Charles Bonaparte, 25 years after the death of the Piddleton bird, did not even acknowledge Montagu’s epithet, preferring instead Alexander Wilson’s Ardea minor, a name that had not appeared in print until January 1814.

Fortunately for almighty priority, Joseph Sabine, in the zoological appendix to Franklin’s 1823 Narrative, noticed that Montagu’s freckled Ardea was in fact the bittern of Canada and the United States, and restored to it the name given it by the British ornithologist, lentiginosa,

which specific name, though given under such peculiarly unscientific circumstances, being the first which had actually been applied to it, must of course remain.

And it does remain, and behind it remains a story that makes seeing one of these great brown herons even better.


Two White-throated Sparrows

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White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow

Both photographed here in northern New Jersey on the same late October day.


Two Days in Cape May

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Yes, I’m still batting 1000 when it comes to fork-tailed flycatchers in New Jersey: Even with the bird’s street address in hand, I missed yet another one yesterday afternoon at Cape May.

And you know what? It doesn’t bother me in the least.


Now that we’re almost three full hours away from New Jersey’s southernmost wedge of sandy land, we don’t get to Cape May very often. Back when we lived in that small central Jersey town with the large university, it seemed like nothing to drive two hours each way for a day with the sea and the sun and the birds, but for some reason the additional 50 minutes or so of parkway dampens my enthusiasm. And now that we live with a big dog, and on one academic salary to boot, staying over for a night or two or three has become a near-impossibility.

And so I looked forward that much more to getting to spend two days down that way this weekend, thanks to Scott & Nix and the Cape May Autumn Weekend. Wednesday night I packed my satchel, moved the slides for my lecture onto one of those magical memory sticks, and slept a few fitful hours before hitting the road (the already busy road: what are non-birders even doing up at such an hour?).

I pulled into the parking lot at Higbee Beach at the magical, still dim hour of 7:05, and already there was something in the air. Lots of somethings, in fact.


The flight was steady and thoroughly October-like, dominated by myrtle warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets — so many of the latter flashing by, at all heights, apparently entirely unconcerned by my presence, that I began to worry my corpse might be found in the first field, covered with tiny puncture wounds. Pine siskins, purple finches, blue-headed vireos, chipping sparrows: It felt great to stand with the wind at the back, watching hundreds and thousands of birds dart overhead or pause in the brightening trees.


The odd merlin and a constant stream of sharp-shinned hawks were enjoying it, too. Watching them partake inspired me, and as things slowed down around 9:30, I set off in search of my own breakfast. On returning to the parking lot, I found this gang staring down at me.

Black vulture

When the black vultures are up, it’s time to head for the hawk watch. I stepped out of the car to find a bird even bigger than the vultures, and more surprising, low overhead.


This American white pelican made me wonder whether there was any reason to venture beyond the parking lot. There probably wasn’t. Palm warblers, Savannah sparrows, and white-throated sparrows thronged the edges of the lot, and if I’d been just a little bit taller, I might even have seen this snazzy drake Eurasian wigeon without stepping off pavement. It turned out to be the first of three or possibly four of that usually uncommon species I would run into — more like Vancouver than New Jersey.


After a few minutes up on the platform — just enough, I hope, to prove myself not entirely asocial — I retreated to the solitude of the beach, where I could sit and watch the sparrows and warblers and kinglets on the dune while royal terns and black and surf scoters flew up and down the shore.


At Cape May, you always want to be looking every direction at once, one eye on the sand, one on the water, one on the sky. That goes double (and that’s six eyes, for those keeping count) if you happen to be a potential prey item, I suppose.


There was a good variety of hawks and falcons keeping the littler birds on their toes. I was happy to see a few broad-winged hawks, a little on the late side for that species, but the highlight for me, as on most late October trips to Cape May, was the chance to see red-shouldered hawks. Long ago someone let me in on a little secret: if you take up residence on a certain bench along a certain trail in the state park, the red-shoulders sometimes pass by nice and low, presumably hunting the treeline rather than spiraling anxiously higher and higher as they tend to do at the hawk watch proper.


There weren’t many during the couple of hours I perched comfortably on my bench, maybe half a dozen, but they included one rosy-breasted adult — and the views were great, low and close.


The only bad thing about an October day in Cape May is that dusk comes so soon. I’d booked my hotel in Absecon so that I could spend the evening at Brigantine, and already it was time to head north.

By the time I was out on the dikes in the late afternoon, the wind — the same wind that had made Higbee so good nine hours earlier — had calmed somewhat, and I was able to be out of the car and scoping comfortably. The birdlife was decidedly autumnal, with the beginnings of a nice selection of ducks, scattered flocks of Atlantic brant, and with the exception of a single juvenile semipalmated sandpiper, only the “late” shorebirds still around. Those first small flocks of dunlin are a sure sign that the seasons are changing.


The seasons, and the weather, too. When I left the hotel the next morning at 6:00, those wonderful northwest winds were back, but the sky was clearer and the air drier than the day before: another cold front had passed, and even in the dark I was seeing passerines cross the parkway as I drove south.

If Friday morning had been lively at Higbee, Saturday the air was alive. Thousands of American robins and myrtle warblers filled the sky, with purple finches, pine siskins, rusty blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, and a dozen other species in their wake. Even more exciting, the night had seen a big push of sparrows. Where I’d been happy to see the odd handful of slate-colored juncos on my first morning, here suddenly were great windrows of them on the paths and roadsides.

I’d intended to walk around the fields slowly, the usual routine, but I ended up standing place for two and a half hours, taking no more steps than absolutely necessary to yield the trail to other birders. My sedentary approach was less strategy than inevitability: every time I considered advancing just a little bit, another rush of sparrows burst out of the goldenrod and grass, or a winter wren hopped along the woodland edge behind me, or a yellow-billed cuckoo or yellow-breasted sapsucker swooped in to perch at close range. Or a junco, finding no easier perch, landed for a breath-taking moment on the long lens of the birder who had paused to talk.

It was spectacular, one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve ever had birding in New Jersey, and the more exciting, as Kevin pointed out later in the day, for being most decidedly not a fallout: no wrecks, no storm-tossed waifs, no tiny creatures shivering for life in unwonted places and habitats. It was simply migration, abundant birds moving south in their abundance the way they have for a long, long time. Exhilarating and wonderful for the observer, no more hazardous than normal for the birds.

The pace had slowed by 10:00, and I was hungry. After breakfast I spent another hour watching Savannah sparrows in the dunes at the state park, then hied myself into town for my lecture. Understandably on so birdy an autumn day, the crowd was not large, but it was engaged and thoughtful — what more can one hope for?

George was good enough to take me to lunch, then we whiled away a birdy half hour at the state park before the book signing.

Rick signing books at Cape May

And then a low rumble was heard from the exhibition rooms. It was the voices of birders, the chatter taking on a new urgency. At the words “fork-tailed flycatcher,” the crowds evaporated and a parade took shape on the streets of old Cape May.

I followed. The bird was gone. But I’d had a great couple of days at what has rightly been called the center of the birding universe.


I love a good appendix.

Lest you think I’m starting an especially ghoulish Halloween especially early, let me hasten to explain:

One of the best parts of Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson is the two-page

list of books available to Alexander Wilson relating to zoology, especially ornithology, in the libraries of the American Philosophical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and William Bartram,

a hugely informative catalogue followed by tables indicating how often Wilson cited each. These few precious pages answer lots of questions — and raise even more that we might not even have thought to ask. And they give us a good sense of just how sloppy a bibliographer Wilson could occasionally be.


In the third volume of the American Ornithology, Wilson announces the discovery of a bird he named Sylvia magnolia, the black and yellow warbler.

Wilson, magnolia warbler

He had collected two himself, and notes that Charles Willson Peale had earlier encountered “this elegant species” in the Philadelphia area.

With the pride of an immigrant, Wilson reminds his reader that

No notice has ever been taken of this bird by any European naturalist whose works I have examined.

Oh, really?

In 1758, eight years before Wilson’s birth, George Edwards presented a fine plate (better than Wilson’s) and a thorough description of the “yellow-rumped fly-catcher,” a bird he had received “preserved dry” from none other than a very young William Bartram, the very man who would nearly half a century later become Wilson’s patron and encourager. To Bartram goes the honor of discovery.

Edwards, magnolia warbler

Mathurin Brisson introduced the bird to continental readers in 1760, citing and largely translating Edwards’s text in the third volume of the Ornithologie. Buffon referred to both Edwards and Brisson for this species, taking the opportunity to gently reproach the Englishman for calling it a moucherolle – a flycatcher — rather than a warbler. John Latham listed the species in his Synopsis in 1783. Two years later, Thomas Pennant included a description of the species in the Arctic Zoology. In 1788, Wilson’s “new” warbler entered the Linnaean canon when it was listed in Gmelin‘s edition of the Systema. Latham used Gmelin’s name, maculosa, in his Index of 1790, published four years before Wilson arrived in America.

I’ve piled up all those names and dates and references to make my point even more, ahem, pointed.

According to Burtt and Davis, Wilson in the American Ornithology cites Edwards 55 times, William Bartram 62 times, Brisson 82 times, Buffon 151 times, and Latham 173 times. He refers to Gmelin only once — and to Gmelin’s English translator, Turton, 64 times.

But not once, in the course of consulting these standard works a minimum of 588 times, did Wilson come across Edwards’s yellow-rump.

Why not? He just plain overlooked it, obviously. But little lapses like this only make their scarcity the more impressive in Wilson’s monumental work.

If you made it to the end of that heap of names and dates a couple of paragraphs up, you will be wondering what ever happened to Dendroica maculosa. To Wilson’s great and good posthumous fortune, Gmelin’s name Motacilla maculosa turned out to have already been used in 1783 by Boddaert to name the Karoo prinia. Wilson’s name, published in 1811, was the next available. 


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