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May
27

“Whitestart”? Just Say No

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Painted redstart, Arizona, August

It matters no more to me than it does to the birds themselves what we call the warblers of the genus Myioborus. Names, after all, don’t signify in the same way as other words. Call these tropical flitters redstarts or whitestarts or falsestarts: each of those names is just as “good” and just as “bad” as the others.

Thus, the AOU check-list committee’s judgment on Proposal 2016-A-2 can go with equal appropriateness either way, retaining the traditional name “redstart” or adopting the neologism “whitestart.” It’s hard to get terribly exercised about onomastic housekeeping like this.

Common Redstart

But what does have my dander just the slightest bit up is the argument presented in the Proposal to make the change. It seems to go like this: the outer rectrices in Myioborus are white, not red; and

“start” of course is the modern English reflex of Middle English stert, Old English steort, tail of an animal.

Ergo, the vernacular name applied to Myioborus, with their flashy white tails, is a “misappropriation” that would “perpetuate ignorance.”

That’s not true at all (“of course”). “Start” hasn’t meant “tail” in English for more than six hundred years; if you don’t believe me, ask any other native speaker. The bird name “redstart” has been etymologically opaque for just as long. In other words, “redstart” doesn’t mean “red-tail” to any English-speaker; it refers, depending on which continent you spend most of your time on, to either a chunky chat or an active wood warbler. 

The Myioborus warblers are nothing if not active (whether they are wood warblers or not is a question for another day). Only naive pedantry can claim that their white tails disqualify them from redstartness. 

 

 

 

 

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May
19

Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

sharp-tailed grouse

Ipswich Sparrow

August 5: “Sparrow Tails,” a lecture at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival.

August 6: “A Day with Rick Wright” at the Southwest Wings Birding Festival.

August 7: Bird walk and book signing at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park.

January 9, 2007, Boyce Thompson 024

August 11-14: Museum workshops and field trips at the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival.

August 15-20: Lecture and field trips at the ABA Birding Rally, Sierra Vista.

September 21: “The Very Worst Bird Names Ever, and Why They’re Not So Bad,” a lecture for Bergen County Audubon Society.

September 30 – October 8: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

Berlin Siegessäule

October 24 – November 1: Birds and Art in Venice and the Po Delta.

March 11-18, 2017: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

March 20, 2017: “Discovering Brown,” a lecture for Washington Crossing Audubon Society.

Gibbon Bridge sunrise sandhill cranes

May 2-10, 2017: Birds and Art in Provence.

May 12-23, 2017: Birds and Art in Tuscany.

European bee-eaters

September 13-20, 2017: The Pine Ridge and Black Hills, a field trip with the Linnaean Society of New York.

Pine Ridge sunrise

September 29 – October 7, 2017: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

common crane

December 19-27, 2017: Christmas in Salzburg.

Hooded Crow and European Red Squirrel

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

Sycamore-Rick.jpg

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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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Feb
24

Ninety-five Years Ago Tonight

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On February 24, 1921, Chauncey J. Hawkins delivered a paper at the meeting of the Linnaean Society of New York. His title and his topic: “Philosophical Ornithology.”

Reverend Hawkins suggested that the goal of the scientific study of birds should be explaining their relationship to the rest of the universe — an early statement of the project later to be known as “ecology.”

The Linnaeans weren’t overly enthusiastic.

In the discussion that followed, it was the opinion of the members that Mr. Hawkins’s paper was one of destructive, rather than constructive, criticism.

We’re a much nicer crowd nowadays.

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Feb
23

Prairie Weekend

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Colorado birding landscape

I couldn’t have been more delighted to be asked to the Great Plains Snow Goose Festival this past weekend, in Lamar, Colorado.

Where?

I’ll confess that I had to open the atlas, too, but when I found out that Lamar was in southeastern Colorado, I was even more excited. I haven’t spent a huge amount of time anywhere in the state, with the high dry plains of the southeast by far the terra most incognita to me — at least until this weekend.

Ted, Hannah, and Andrew were waiting for me at the baggage claim when I got to Denver, and in just a few minutes we were on the highway headed south on a startlingly warm and dramatically windy afternoon.

Country Acres motel, Lamar, CO

I slept well and long in the “Fort Room” at Country Acres, probably to the crowing rooster’s frustration, then stepped outside to see the sun rise. An American kestrel was hunting behind the motel, while the parking lot out front was mastered by a different surveying falcon, one of several Richardson’s merlins that kept things exciting for birds and birders all weekend long.

Merlin Colorado

The first field trip, a walk along the Willow Creek trail behind the community college, was well attended and a lot of fun; I was especially happy that Connie had come down for the day — we’ve been “e-friends” ever since she first wrote for me at Winging It, but had never managed to take to the field together.

The birds were every bit as good as the birders. Local Coloradans were happy to see northern cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows, eastern bluebirds, and eastern white-breasted nuthatches. The great looks and the birders’ enthusiasm made those birds more than special even for this easterner, but naturally I was drawn even more to the Oregon and pink-sided juncos, lesser goldfinches, and the Townsend’s solitaire perched low and close in the brush. A sharp-shinned hawk dropped in, too, no doubt enjoying the abundance of passerines as much as I was, if perhaps differently.

Townsend's solitaire, Colorado, February, cropped and brightened

With a break of several hours until the next outing, a few of us simply stayed on Willow Creek, watching the season’s first mourning cloaks drift by while a Cooper’s hawk clucked and cackled from a branch above us, then took off into display flight with undertail fluffed and spread. The local great horned owls were invisible, but scattered pellets assured us that they were eating well. What was probably the same flock of pine siskins, with a few American and lesser goldfinches at the edges, buzzed us repeatedly.

The late afternoon walk was as much fun as the morning iteration, with many of the same birds putting on a show just as good. A different sharp-shinned hawk flashed over the trees in search of a meal, while two red-tailed hawks may have been more interested in scouting out a roosting site for the night to come.

DSC09273

The next morning started with a big breakfast at the Cow Palace before we all climbed into a minibus to look for raptors north and east of Lamar. I’m always a bit uneasy about raptor trips, but Pat had done as good a job of scouting as he did all morning of driving. We started off with a bang: the first of multiple ferruginous hawks, a northern shrike (with three for the weekend, nearly as common as loggerheads!), excellent close views of horned larks — the most abundant bird most people in North America have never seen.

Thurston Reservoir was paved with ducks, most of them redheads and gadwall; there were a few canvasbacks, wood ducks, and lesser scaup in the mix of fifteen species. The stunning cinnamon teal were probably the first arrivals of spring, and a bird I’d really been hoping to see.

A few scattered sandhill cranes had been standing on the pastures on the way in, but now, as it came time for their mid-morning loaf, small gangs began to fly in to the lakeshore. We checked every one for a black neck as they landed, legs a-dangle and wings a-tilt in the breeze.

But this was a raptor tour, and even at the reservoir the birds refused to let us forget it. There is apparently a harrier roost there: no fewer than nine birds came up out of the cattails to soar and glide together as the morning warmed. Our best views of ferruginous hawk — and we had many good views — were offered by a bird that blew in and circled right above our heads, certainly the highlight of the field trip and one of the most vivid memories I carried away from the entire weekend.

As we approached the Kansas border, raptors thinned out, though it was this segment of the trip that gave us, surprisingly, the only prairie falcon of the day. We ended at a sad and somber site, “Camp” Amache, where Americans imprisoned Americans in the 1940s.

"Camp" Amache

After lunch it was time for a workshop I called “Bird-Shaped,” concentrating on how to make verbally explicit the impressions we form of the birds we see. After half an hour of slides and conversation, we retired to the parking lot, where mourning doves, Eurasian collared doves, and rock pigeons showed off their tail shapes, wing shapes, and flight habits. Thank goodness for the columbids!

Eurasian collared-dove

After a fine banquet meal, it was time for a lecture. We talked about fishing in the sky, lives being saved by an island sparrow, and how you can get your own name attached to a goose you’ve already named for somebody else — the usual stuff. There was laughter at the right points.

john Martin Reservoir, Colorado, February

And then, already, it was Sunday. The early morning was cooler than the days before, but as we moved north on our final birding ramble, the blue skies and warming temperatures made it easy once again to forget that it was February. 

John Martin Reservoir was the location of my favorite mammal sighting of the weekend, a pocket gopher (sp.) working the sandy soil. 

pocket gopher, unknown species, Prowers Co., Colorado

The water level was high and the dam road inaccessible, but we kept checking the gulls overhead. Finally a huge, barrel-chested white one appeared, soaring over dry prairie that I hope reminded this glaucous gull of its natal tundra. The birds that saw us off when it was time to move on were more at home in the habitat, I think: two greater roadrunners, my absolute “target birds” for the trip, ran and picked and poked and trotted along as we watched. 

birders birding Colorado

We kept moving, stopping at lakes and fields and puddles and pastures, listening to the moaning chorus of redheads and the frantic chucking of red-winged blackbirds on noticing a perched merlin. And then the lights of Denver and the airport, after a weekend when I finally got to know a new favorite place.

Birds

Greater white-front goose

snow goose

cackling goose

Canada goose

wood duck

gadwall

American wigeon

mallard

cinnamon teal

northern shoveler

northern pintail

green-winged teal

canvasback

redheda

ring-necked duck

lesser scaup

bufflehead

common goldeneye

hooded merganser

common merganser

scaled quail

wild turkey

pied-billed grebe

great blue heron

bald eagle

northern harrier

sharp-shinned hawk

Cooper’s hawk

red-tailed hawk

ferruginous hawk

American coot

sandhill crane

killdeer

ring-billed gull

herring gull

lesser black-backed gull

glaucous gull

rock pigeon

Eurasian collared-dove

mourning dove

greater roadrunner

great horned owl

red-bellied woodpecker

downy woodpecker

northern flicker

American kestrel

merlin

prairie falcon

loggerhead shrike

northern shrike

blue jay

black-billed magpie

American crow

horned lark

eastern white-breasted nuthatch

ruby-crowned kinglet

eastern bluebird

Townsend’s solitaire

American robin

European starling

cedar waxwing

Lapland longspur

myrtle warbler

Audubon’s warbler

American tree sparrow

song sparrow

white-throated sparrow

white-crowned sparrow

slate-colored junco

Oregon junco

pink-sided junco

northern cardinal

red-winged blackbird

western meadowlark

great-tailed grackle

house finch

pine siskin

lesser goldfinch

American goldfinch

house sparrow

Mammals

pocket gopher sp.

fox squirrel

black-tailed prairie-dog

desert cottontail

eastern cottontail

black-tailed jackrabbit

pronghorn

mule deer

white-tailed deer

 

 

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