Archive for Birding New Jersey
After two good days of waterfowl watching here in northern New Jersey, I fell asleep last night doubly grateful for the down that keeps us warm. As usual, the last pictures to scroll across the inside of my eyelids were of the day’s birds: of red-breasted mergansers already courting on the shore, ruddy ducks huddled in sleeping masses on the ponds, Atlantic brant grazing on coastal lawns, the two drake Eurasian wigeon that startled me so happily on the Shark River.
I slept well, but was awakened very early in the middle of a dream about goldeneye. But wait — I was awake, and I could still hear their wing whistle. Could it be?
No, of course not.
Gellert, wearing the Christmas finery he’s so proud of, had simply shifted in his sleep.
Who knows? He might have been dreaming of ducks, too.
The New Jersey Meadowlands were chilly and dim this morning, but the birding was a lot of fun anyway. There were impressive numbers of waterfowl on the marshes and impoundments, among them a dozen ruddy ducks, one of the few anatid species whose numbers in the mid-Atlantic seem to be declining.
Not only is this chunky, big-headed duck one of our most attractive, it also provides the answer to any number of birding trivia questions:
Which New Jersey duck is named for a Caribbean island?
Which duck lays the largest eggs for its body size?
Which male duck has ….
Well, we’ll leave that one right there. But there’s still the matter of this captivating species’ official English name, a name commemorating only a briefly held plumage of only one of the sexes and far less evocative than almost any of the dozens of other, popular names this duck has borne.
The canonical diagnosis of this species was published by Gmelin in 1788, who named it Anas jamaicensis:
A duck barred dusky and rusty yellow, sooty above with a dark crown, the chin and throat white spotted with black, the vent and rump barred dusky and reddish.
Obviously, Gmelin did not assign this duck the English name “ruddy,” but he does cite an earlier description, in John Latham’s General Synopsis. Gmelin, it turns out, had simply translated the English account, which Latham based on what sounds like a non-breeding male. Neither ornithologist, obviously, had any notion of the spectacular breeding plumage of the species; indeed, Latham tells us expressly that his Jamaica specimen was taken in the winter, when ruddy ducks aren’t.
And now things get interesting. If we move forward through the editions of the Systema, we find the name “ruddy duck” in Turton’s English translation of 1802 — where it’s applied to a different bird.
This is clearly a description of the ruddy shelduck; for our bird, Turton — like Gmelin — uses Latham’s rather unimaginative “Jamaica shoveler,” a name that we might still be using today had Alexander Wilson not made what he thought was an exciting discovery in Peale’s Philadelphia museum: a
very rare Duck was shot, some years ago on the river Delaware, and appears to be an entire new species.
Wilson was “at first inclined to believe” that his new duck was identical with Latham’s Jamaica shoveler,
but a more careful examination of both satisfied me that they cannot be the same, as the present [species] differs considerably in color…. front, crown, and back part of the neck down nearly to the back [are] black; rest of the neck, whole back, scapulars, flanks and tail coverts deep reddish brown, the color of bright mahogany.
That description confirms what Wilson’s engraving already demonstrates: namely, that one of Peale’s birds was a male in his bright breeding plumage. I think we can forgive Wilson his error in deciding that the Philadelphia ducks were “non-descript,” a deficiency he remedied by naming them himself in the pages of the American Ornithology.
The drake’s mahogany upperparts were so striking that Wilson memorialized them in both the English and scientific names he assigned the species. And the names themselves seemed so apt that Latham’s “Jamaica shoveler” essentially disappeared after 1814.
Anas jamaicensis, however, would survive. Unlike vernacular names, scientific names are governed by the law of priority — also known as dibs: as soon as two “species” are known to be one, the first binomial is applied. So who figured out that the Jamaican shoveler and Wilson’s Pennsylvanian duck were the same?
I don’t like grocery shopping. At all. But Alison is even busier than usual this time of year, so it has been my lot of late to be dodging cars in parking lots and carts in narrow aisles. No fun at all.
This morning’s expedition was better, though. As I stepped out of the car, senses alert, a big black bird flew across low: a common raven. No longer rare, no longer unexpected, this species is always great to see, especially in the urban wilds of northern New Jersey.
But here’s my dilemma.
Brookdale Park is just two blocks from our local Shoprite (grocery store names!), and the tops of its tall old oaks and tulips dominate the view to the west. Which is where this morning’s raven came from.
Brookdale happens to be the only site for which I am keeping careful lists nowadays. And I’ve been expecting a common raven to show up.
But I can’t “count” this one for the park. Neither the bird nor I was in or over Brookdale at the time of the sighting, so the gap in the list remains.
Silly, yes. Arbitrary, yes. But it wouldn’t be a game if it didn’t have rules.
On December 8, 1776, George Washington retreated across the Delaware into the relative safety of Pennsylvania. Yesterday, Gellert and I met up with John and Judy to watch the mid-day “re-enactment” of the much more famous Christmas crossing the other direction.
The actors take their roles very seriously, and do a fine job, I think, of persuading the modern-day crowd to overlook the roar of traffic from Highway 29, the Coast Guard boats hovering beneath the bridge, and the click and whirr of all those cameras.
The one thing we couldn’t ignore was the birds. Here’s my total list from river and roadside in the state park:
Of those dozen species, four were probably present to witness the passage of the American soldiers back and forth across the Delaware. The horrible winter of 1776-77 almost certainly meant that there were few if any waterfowl still on the river at Christmas. Wintering turkey vultures — and black vultures at any season — are still a recent phenomenon this far north.
Red-bellied woodpeckers didn’t reach central New Jersey until the twentieth century. And it seems likely, given the early deforestation of that area of the state, that the pileated woodpecker was already extirpated, not to return for another century and a half.
Rock pigeons, on the other hand, were probably almost as common then as they are now, though their distribution must have been more closely linked to barns then than it is today. And I’m sure that the brushy edges and hedgerows were full of downy woodpeckers and song sparrows, just as American crows must have hunted the fields.
Things have changed, and will continue to change. At least we didn’t see any collared-doves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.