Archive for Birding New Jersey
That should do it, right?
Tuesday was a great day: the rain was pretty much done, red-spotted efts were everywhere on the trails at High Point, and I got to spend the day birding with Sandy, Bobbi, and Peter.
The only thing missing was birds.
That’s not fair, of course. By my tally, we came up with something like 54 species in our eight hours, among them such fancy birds as Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo. But it is still unmistakably June, and most of the breeding birds of the New Jersey Skylands are too busy with their nests and young to worry about putting on a show for human gawkers.
Still, the woods are hardly silent. Gray Catbirds, Veeries, and American Redstarts are keeping up a pleasant background din, and above it all rings the incessant whistled chant of the Red-eyed Vireos.
“Preacher birds,” they’re called. Or so I’m told.
A great many “colloquial” names are no such thing. Birders are prone to would-be cuteness, and we often make up names and contrive origin myths to back them up.
I’ve long been certain that “preacher” for the Red-eyed Vireo was one of those made-up “folk names.” It occurs in neither the Century Dictionary nor the OED, and Catesby — whose Red-ey’d Fly-catcher provided Linnaeus’s type for the species — knows nothing of it.
Wilson, who tells a very funny onomastic joke about the White-eyed Vireo, has only this to say about the tireless singing of our bird: the Red-eyed Flycatcher
arrives here late in April; has a loud, lively and energetic song, which it continues, as it hunts among the thick foliage, sometimes for an hour with little intermission…. even in August, long after the rest have almost all become mute, the notes of the Red-eyed Flycatcher are frequently heard with unabated spirit.
Neither does Audubon think to compare “the little vocalist’s … great volubility [and] unremitting … exertions” as a songster to the droning sermonizer. And it is telling, I think, that the name “preacher” is nowhere to be found in the first four editions of Coues’s Key, making its appearance there only in the fifth, posthumous edition of 1903.
So where did the name come from, if not from the innocent and unschooled lips of the folk?
Amazingly enough, we know.
Wilson Flagg was a popular nature writer in the middle of the nineteenth century. In his Birds and Seasons of New England, published in 1875, Flagg wrote of “two little birds whose songs are heard daily, and hourly,” from the elms of Boston Common to the trees of suburbs and country towns,
one of which I shall designate as the Brigadier, the other, as the Preacher…. I have determined to name them according to the style of their songs….
The “Brigadier” is the Eastern Warbling Vireo, whose scratchy, sliding phrases seemed to Flagg to repeat that word. And the “Preacher” is our Red-eyed Vireo,
constantly talking… repeating moderately, with a pause between each sentence, “You see it, — you know it, — do you hear me? –do you believe it?” … He is never fervent, rapid, or fluent, but, like a true zealot, he is apt to be tiresome, from the long continuance of his discourse.
Like all such clever tales, Flagg’s took on a life of its own. In 1902, the New York Times noted that
the red-eyed vireo has been called the preacher bird because his song is of the didactic order, and a story is told that once upon a time a nest was found into which was woven a text “I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being.” The story is vouched for as true, but whether it is true or not it has its bearing. The preacher lives up to the text .
The vireo continues to do so, and we continue to tell Flagg’s story, in books and blogs and conversations afield. Maybe next time we’ll mention its witty inventor’s name, too.
Clear up at the top of that spindly spire, there’s something looking at us.
Just what this Green Heron was doing so high up and so exposed is anybody’s guess.
I waited a while to see if perhaps it would dive into the nearby farm pond from that great height, but no luck. It soon bethought itself and flew down to the edge of the water, where it started creeping around in its wonted style.
I remember my very first Grasshopper Sparrows, and I remember many of the hundreds — maybe thousands — of individuals I’ve seen in the 35 years since. But whenever I see this species in New Jersey, as I did yesterday morning at the beautiful Negri-Nepote Grassland Preserve, I think of one particular bird in Mercer County in September 1999.
Alison and I had just moved to New Jersey — her first time to live in the state, my second. One evening before her classes started I spirited her away out of Princeton to the north shore of the lake in Mercer County Park, near enough to require only a little driving but far enough, at least as I remembered it, to turn up some birds. We’d barely parked when we heard that high-pitched, hissing trill, and it took no more than a minute for us to find the singer, perched atop –
The very bulldozer that was spending its working days turning the grassy field into more golf course, more parking lot, and less sparrow habitat was serving in the evening as a song perch for a Grasshopper Sparrow. The sight was sad and heartening and funny and, well, sad all at once. We kind of get used to that here in New Jersey.
By paying lavish attention to songs and calls, Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s fine new Warbler Guide acknowledges what birders across eastern North America learn anew each spring: some of these little birds are a lot easier to hear than to see. I was thinking about that a couple of days ago while I was enjoying some outstanding views of a singing Worm-eating Warbler, the first I think I’d actually seen all spring, common and noisy as the species is at some sites here in northern New Jersey.
It is quite possible that this species enjoys the highest heard-to-seen ratio for me of any parulid, beating out even such notoriously brown, notoriously skulky birds as the Swainson’s Warber and the Louisiana Waterthrush. I don’t get the impression that Worm-eatings are particularly shy; they’re just intent on going about their vermivorous business, and that business tends to take them into leafy, shady, ticky places I tend not to go.
That behavior made this species an especially mysterious one for early ornithologists. Gmelin gave the bird its formal binomial Motacilla vermivora in 1789, relying on the description and plate provided 30 years earlier in George Edwards’s Gleanings.
Edwards coined, or more likely published for the first time, the name “Worm-eater,” but he was forthright in admitting that this “Pensiluania” native’s actual relationships were unclear:
The bird seems to be of a kind between the slender-billed birds and the thick-billed granivorous tribe, its beak being thicker than the first, and more slender than the latter…. pretty sharp-pointed, dusky on its upper side, and flesh-coloured beneath….
The specimen Edwards painted had come from William Bartram, who was able to provide a few details of the bird’s life history: Bartram reports that in the Philadelphia area
it is a bird of passage and…. appears first in July, and passes on to the northward; but how far it goes is uncertain. The birds, which pass through the country northward in the spring, being never observed to return the same way, Mr. Bartram supposes that they go to the southward in autumn by some other passage beyond their inland mountains.
Edwards’s description and “exact” illustration provided everything European ornithology knew about this species for nearly half a century, from Brisson to Pennant and Latham and beyond. Bartram’s supposition about the birds’ migratory movements was also accepted and repeated as authoritative; Buffon wrote that
no doubt on the different southbound route they find in abundance the worms and insects that serve them as food.
Alexander Wilson was having none of it.
He quotes Pennant’s Arctic Zoology on the bird’s July arrival and circular migrations, then blasts such speculation out of the water in one of the most unpleasantly sarcastic passages in all of the American Ornithology:
That a small bird should permit the whole spring and half of the summer to pass away before it thought of ‘passing to the north to breed’, is a circumstance one should think would have excited the suspicion of so discerning a naturalist as the author of Arctic Zoology, as to its truth…. As to their returning home by ‘the country beyond the mountains’, this must doubtless be for the purpose of finishing the education of their striplings here, as is done in Europe, by making the grand tour…. Unfortunately however for this pretty theory, all our vernal visitants with which I am acquainted, are contented to plod home by the same regions through which they advanced….
Quite apart from showing us Wilson at his dourest, these words also raise an interesting question about Wilson’s research practices. We know, thanks to Burtt and Davis, that he had access to all seven volumes of Edwards’s Gleanings, a book that he cites — again, according to Burtt and Davis — a total of 55 times.
But Wilson obviously didn’t consult that work thoroughly or consistently. If he had, he would have known that the “pretty theory” he so relentlessly ridicules here had been advanced not by Edwards but by William Bartram. It is inconceivable that Wilson would have let loose on his own dear friend and treasured mentor the way that he did on Edwards, safely dead a long generation by the time the American Ornithology began to appear.
The inescapable conclusion is that at least in this case, Wilson was sloppy. Finding all that he needed in Pennant (who is quoted 184 times in the American Ornithology), our author just didn’t bother returning to Edwards, Latham, or Buffon — all of whom are dutifully cited in the Arctic Zoology.
If Wilson were my student, I’d return his paper with a sharply worded note about the need to go back ad fontes. But let’s be fair: conducting this sort of research in the early nineteenth century (or, for that matter, in the late twentieth) was time-consuming and difficult, requiring careful note-taking and lots of scurrying from library to library to library. And thankfully for us, Wilson had much better things to do.