Archive for Birding New Jersey

Mar
30

Parsing the Parson Bird

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Maybe it’s just the caffeine talking (dark chocolate petits écoliers, lots of ’em), but I’ve had a great idea.

It is well known and greatly regretted that the last two volumes of Louis-Pierre Vieillot’s Natural History of the Birds of North America were never published, surviving only in manuscript fair copy now in a private collection.

To judge by the contents of the first volumes, it can be expected that these other, unpublished two also contain information that would help us answer a couple of very important questions about early American ornithology: namely, what Vieillot was up to in the nearly five years he spent in New York and New Jersey; and what the lines of influence and what their direction between him and his colleagues in America, chief among them William Bartram and Alexander Wilson.

We sometimes forget, though, that at least some of the material meant for publication in those concluding volumes of the Natural History was almost certainly “recycled” by Vieillot in his work for the Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle, many of the articles in which relate his own experiences in the 1790s with the birds of North America.

Someone (“someone,” not I) should assemble all of the ornithological entries from the Dictionnaire in a single place, then collate the articles that have them with their counterparts in the published volumes of the Natural History. Any principles and patterns deduced from that comparison can be used to reconstruct the species accounts in the unpublished volumes, which will move us closer to understanding the matters I mentioned above. I’ve done this already in the case of one species, in an essay set to appear in print sometime later this year, but I think the systematic working through of all the material might well bear significant fruit.

And it would certainly raise some other, perhaps less weighty questions.

I happened the other day to be wondering about indigo buntings — pushing the season, I know, though it should be only three weeks or so before the first arrive in our yard. My question was a trivial one and easily answered, but as usual, one citation led to another to another and another, until I landed on Vieillot and noticed something I had overlooked before. In the header to his Dictionnaire entry, he calls Passerina cyanea “La Passerine Bleue, ou le Ministre,” that second a name that does not occur in the earliest English description of the bird, Mark Catesby’s “Blew Linnet.”

Vieillot’s account is a composite of several sources, supplemented by his own observations made in New York and New Jersey and a critical review of the older literature on the species; his direct reliance on Wilson (whom he does not cite) is proved by a slight but telling mistranslation.

Neither Wilson nor Vieillot offers any comment on the name “ministre.” They have it from Buffon, who notes that

this is the name that the bird dealers give to a bird from Carolina, which others call “l’evêque” [the bishop]…. We have seen this bird several times at the establishment of Château, to whom we owe what little is known of its history.

Ange-Auguste Château was bird dealer to the king, supplying “an extraordinary variety of species” from around the world. Presumably Château, or one of his collectors in the field, was Buffon’s source for the name “ministre.” If he told the great natural historian what that name meant, Buffon didn’t think to pass it on to his reader.

A faint hint was provided by John Latham, who in 1783 translated the Buffonian names into English. In Carolina, he wrote, the indigo bunting

is called by some The Parson, by others The Bishop.

He provides a footnote to Buffon for each of the two names.

Whether Latham’s rendering of “ministre” as “parson” is correct or not is impossible to say at this remove, but it is plausible given that the alternative, “bishop,” is also drawn from the ecclesiastical realm. “Bishop,” like “cardinal” and “pope” for other colorful creatures of Catholic lands, is clearly a reference to the splendor of the indigo bunting’s plumage, and in other cases, “parson” has a similar visual function, identifying birds — the tui, the great cormorant, certain Sporophila seedeaters — with somber black feathers and a bit of white at the throat or neck.

Not here, though. Iridescent blue-green with flashing black highlights is not the modest garb I associate with a parson, and indigo buntings have no hint of a clerical collar. The inspiration for the name “parson” cannot be visual, so what is it?

This is only a guess, but I suspect that “parson” was a joke name, like “lawyer” for the black-necked stilt (wears formal attire and presents a long bill), “prothonotary” for the golden swamp warbler (goes on and on in a monotone), or “preacher” for the red-eyed vireo (vocalizes into the heat of mid-day).

And the indigo bunting? Says Wilson,

It mounts to the highest tops of a large tree and chants for half an hour at a time…. a repetition of short notes, commencing loud and rapid, and falling by almost imperceptible gradations for six or eight seconds… and after a pause of half a minute or less, commences again as before.

Modern birders recognize the song by the singer’s tendency to say everything twice.

 

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May
18

Alice’s Little Thrush

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gray-cheeked thrush

All birding, they say, is local, and there’s nothing like a mid-May visit to the old midwest to prove it. The species I was happiest to see last week in Michigan included the golden-winged warbler, black-billed cuckoo, and Tennessee warbler — none of them exactly rare in New Jersey, either, but it’s a fine feeling to roll out early on a warm morning and know that those and so many other migrants could be almost counted on.

Gray-cheeked thrushes, too, are vastly more common and vastly easier to see west of here, and it was gratifying to get excellent and prolonged views of this secretive bird several times last week.

But it was doubly gratifying to look out the window here at home this morning to see the bird in the photo bouncing around the backyard. It’s hard to get much more local than that.

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Jan
06

Lonely at the Top

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DSC08775

These trees at the edge of Brookdale Park‘s sparrow patch are usually filled with European starlings. These past few mornings now, however, there’s been just one lonesome bird perched high in the bare twigs.

merlin

She must have offended the others somehow.

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Mar
10

Brookdale Park: It’s Spring

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Maybe it doesn’t look like it. Even after a day and a half of afternoon melting, the snow still lies heavy on all but the most open of southern exposures, and the sidewalks still have their treacherous stretches for those like me who don’t pay much attention to their feet.

Brookdale Park sunrise in March

It was wonderful to step out of the car just before sunrise this morning and find that I could do without a hat — and that the red-bellied woodpeckers and tufted titmice were already tuning up for the morning song. A few herring and ring-billed gulls passed over on their way to feed inland, and American robins were chuckling and tsleeting from the tree tops.

Then spring arrived. A distant ascending wheeze announced the arrival of a small flock of male common grackles, followed by another, followed by another…. My total in just over an hour was only about 60 birds, hardly massive numbers judged by what is to come, but 60 more than had been hanging out in the neighborhood for the last several months.

It’s harder to know whether the noisy blue jays were arrivals or still some of the many that spent the winter with us this year. I followed one little flock through the park, hoping for a glimpse of an owl or raccoon or yeti, but all I saw was the local red-tailed hawk pair, looking pained as they kept their heads down and their profiles low.

DSC02279

A couple of weeks from now, a morning’s list of 20 species will be a disappointment. Today, though, it’s a happy sign of things just around the corner.

Grackles now, blackpolls soon!

DSC02253

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Feb
26

At Liberty on a Chilly Morning

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Liberty State Park

Fifty-five minutes in to my twenty-minute drive, I remembered why I don’t bird Liberty State Park that often.

Ten minutes in to my two-hour walk, I remembered why I should.

Liberty State Park

There weren’t all that many birds, and any rarities that might have been hanging around managed to avoid detection, but even on a cold, dank, breezy morning, I always found something to look at, from harbor seals out in the water to American tree and song sparrows taking advantage of the snow plow’s imprecisions.

Song sparrow

I should be seeing plenty more tree sparrows in Nebraska in a couple of weeks, but here in New Jersey, they will disappear with the snow cover — a fact that creates more than a bit of psychic tension in birders, like me, who wouldn’t half mind seeing the ground again sometime soon.

American tree sparrow

There was a nice little flock of 35 horned larks in the parking lot when I arrived. They stayed just long enough to confirm that they were alone; I’d expected snow buntings, and hoped for longspurs or pipits.

I didn’t walk far enough to see if the usual wintering gang of ruddy ducks was in residence. On glimpsing a distant flock of scaup, though, I did venture out onto the open fields for a closer look. The great hope is always that an Aythya flock contain at least three species, and this one did. Not, unfortunately, the tufted duck I’d been crossing my freezing fingers for, but a drake redhead, a nice enough find by local standards.

Redhead

I’ve had a good winter for redheads here in New Jersey; I think today was the third day this calendar year I’d seen the species in the state– not quite like “the old days” of the 1980s, when you could almost count on finding redheads on the North Shore ponds. I often wonder, when I do run across these handsome ducks nowadays, whether the decline of winterers here in New Jersey is perhaps connected with the end of the New York introduction program, begun, if rightly I remember, in the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s.

After a couple of hours outside, the cold got to me; but I justified my early departure by the chance of running into even worse traffic on the way home. I didn’t. So maybe I’ll forget what a bear that drive can be, and try Liberty again one of these days.

Atlantic brant

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