Archive for Birding New Jersey

Sep
14

Did Anybody Ever Really Think That?

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whiskered tern and gull-billed tern

The find of the fall — so far — at Cape May has been the continental US’s third whiskered tern, discovered a couple of days ago and still showing nicely, I hear. I’ve got fingers, toes, and eyes crossed that it linger until next Monday, when my group will be there with hopeful bells on.

In all the excitement, there’s inevitably been some shooting from the hip about this bird’s name, Chlidonias hybridaand we’ve been reminded more than once now over these past days that the species owes that funny epithet to the quaint belief that these birds actually were hybrids.

But that’s not true. Though there are plenty of cases in which “good” species were originally mistaken for the products of miscegenation, this isn’t one of them.

Peter Simon Pallas observed this “extremely rare bird” a few times in the course of his expedition to central and eastern Russia, and almost 40 years later, he gave it its first formal scientific description in the Zoographia Rosso-asiatica. He named it Sterna hybrida, not because he or anyone else had thought it was a hybrid, but because its appearance combined features of the “white” and of the “black” terns.

You might say that it was born of the black and the common tern.

You might say — “diceres” — but no one did.

Of course, Pallas was not the first to see this widespread tern. He himself indicates that it had perhaps already been described and depicted — in neither case very well — in Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli’s pre-Linnaean Danubius pannonico-mysicus, where the bird is said to differ from the black tern in its reddish bill and feet.

Marsigli, whiskered [or black?] tern

The account of the plumage here more closely recalls, if anything, a molting black or white-winged tern; indeed, Brisson would later use Marsigli’s description as the basis for his own “patchy tern,” Sterna naevia, which, if memory serves, Bonaparte eventually identified as a black tern.

The sorting out of the marsh terns and their names took some time; as late as Coues’s “Review of the Terns of North America,” there still obtained “a state of great confusion,” and even more than a dozen years later, Taczanowski could mix up the names of the whiskered and the white-winged terns. We were well into the twentieth century before any sort of stability could be declared.

But never did we really believe that any of them were hybrids.

whiskered tern, France

And why is it hybrida? We’re told that this is a noun “in apposition” and not an adjective. Hmph.

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The calendar and the weather agree: It’s still late summer in northern New Jersey. A month from now, things will be different, but for the moment, only the most foolishly impatient prodder of the seasons is thinking of winter birds.

Except, of course, on this date. It’s September 6. And every year on this day, we pause — don’t we? — to remember the only Oregon junco named for a New Jersey birder.

Dwight 1918 thurberi junco

Eugene Carleton Thurber died in California on September 6, 1896, at the shockingly tender age of 31. Born in Poughkeepsie in 1865, Thurber moved to Morristown in 1881; a “promising young ornithologist, a careful collector, and a good observer,” he published his magnum (and perhaps solum) opus in November 1887, the List of Birds of Morris County, notable especially for its early records of the Lawrence’s and Brewster’s warblers.

Fragile health sent Thurber to California in 1889, where he

lived an out-of-door life in the field, collecting birds and mammals, as his health would permit, and preserving to the end his love for his favorite study.

On May 24, 1890, Thurber collected two juncos on Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. That summer, he showed the skins to Alfred Webster Anthony, another New York native exploring the Golden State; Anthony was “considerably surprised” to learn of juncos’

nesting in abundance within twenty-five miles of Los Angeles,

and as none of the other local collections seemed to include any similar specimens, he organized an expedition in late August to “obtain, if possible, a series of birds.” On August 27 and 28, Anthony found juncos “very abundant” between 5200 and 5800 feet elevation. He shot what seems to have been a total of eight adults, two juveniles, and one bird of unknown age and sex; all of those new adult specimens, however, were — as one might have predicted, without climbing the mountain in the first place — “in ragged moulting plumage,” inadequate for diagnosis.

So Anthony, apparently forgetting about Google Images, sent his little series, which by now included both of Thurber’s skins, to Washington, whence Robert Ridgway replied with some “rather unexpected” information: Anthony’s — Thurber’s — California juncos represented a “strongly marked” but still unnamed subspecies.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 16.31.38

A deficiency, naturally enough, that Anthony promptly made up in the October 31, 1890, issue of Zoe:

I take pleasure in naming this handsome Junco for the discoverer, Mr. E.C. Thurber of Alhambra, Cal.

A few months later, having run through the juncos in a collection of birds purchased from Thurber in 1889, Frank Chapman was mildly skeptical: he pointed out that Anthony had failed to demonstrate that his new thurberi could be distinguished from the very widespread shufeldti.

The AOU, however, recognized the new race in 1892, and continued to list it as valid in the last Check-list to tally subspecies. BNA and Pyle, too, list thurberi among the Oregon junco subspecies. I’m glad we have a name for this population, whose recent colonization of the nearby California lowlands has provided some surprising insights into the rapidity of junco evolution.    

Thurber’s early death kept him from leaving much of a biographical trail: We know a great deal more about the junco than the man. All the more reason to remember him once a year, I think, even if our juncos are still a month away.

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Aug
15

Upcoming Lecture: Owls

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Screenshot 2014-08-15 12.28.16

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  

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Aug
15

Curb Appeal

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Downy Woodpecker

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.

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Aug
01

Named for a Neighbor

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Screenshot 2014-06-12 16.13.56

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.

birders birding Brookdale Park

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 Aukdescribing 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. 

Keuleman, white-fronted nunbird

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.

 

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