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Apr
14

Red Warblers and White-eared Titmice

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I don’t care that it looks like the cloud of suspicion hanging over that Arizona red warbler is about to break out into a downpour of doubt. I’m still enormously jealous; whether it turns out that the tropical beauty flew from southern Mexico or it crossed the border in the backseat of an Altima, I will forever regret not having seen that flash of red in the ponderosa pines of Rose Canyon.

If the bird is eventually adjudged a plausibly “natural” vagrant, it will represent the first generally accepted record of the species north of Mexico — a very carefully qualified formulation that reminds us that the red warbler had a firm place on official lists of the birds of the United States for nearly sixty years before it was definitively removed in 1910.

Like so many Mexican birds, the red warbler was introduced to western science by the William Bullocks, father and son, as part of their London exhibitions of zoological and anthropological curiosities. Wildly successful for a while, the show eventually, inevitably, lost its appeal, and Bullock, Sr., sold the collection in a famous series of auctions.

Before the birds went on the block, however, he made at least some of the specimens available to William Swainson, who formally described and named the new ones in the Philosophical Magazine for 1827. Swainson gave Setophaga rubra a clear and straightforward diagnosis: the new Mexican warbler, collected in Michoacán, was “entirely red,” its “ear feathers of a silky whiteness.” No mistaking this for any other bird.

That original description was translated into German in the Isisand Swainson himself repeated it in his 1838 Animals in Menageries, this time based on a specimen in his own collection from Toluca.

colored plate of the bird, based on an uncharacteristically clunky painting by Jean-Gabriel Prêtre, was published in 1836, accompanying Frédéric de Lafresnaye’s description of what he thought was a new species, the vermilion warbler, brought back from Xalapa by “Mme Salé” (presumably Cathérine Caillard Sallé, mother of the natural historian Auguste Sallé).  Charles Bonaparte corrected Lafresnaye’s error a year later, pointing out that the Xalapa bird was in fact identical to Swainson’s — but committing a lapse of his own in including Guatemala in the species’ range.

And it wasn’t over yet. More than a decade after William Swainson brought the red warbler to the notice of the scientific world, the New York collector Jacob P. Giraud received a shipment of bird skins from Texas, fully sixteen of which represented what Giraud thought were new species. Among them were a striking little creature that Giraud named the white-cheeked titmouse, Parus leucotis. The accompanying plate (at the top of this blog ‘post’) was by A. Halsey, an illustrator far less famous than the engraver, Nathaniel Currier.

The mistaken identity was quickly rectified. A few scant months after Giraud’s publication, George Clinton Leib noted, clearly and convincingly, that he had determined

Parus leucotis of Giraud to be identical with the Setophaga rubra of Swainson,

an observation affirmed “without doubt” by Philip Lutley Sclater a dozen years later.

The truly spectacular aspect of Giraud’s specimen, though, was not the bird’s identity but its origin. Giraud did not secure his type himself, but is quite clear that he acquired it from someone else, most likely his usual New York dealer, John Graham Bell, who was also the collector’s taxidermist of choice.

Giraud took Bell at his word as to the provenance of the Texas shipment, thus inspiring a poorly documented but nevertheless obviously vehement argument about those sixteen “new species” that would go on for a full forty years after Giraud’s death in July 1870.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, the most influential American natural historian of his day, listed the Texas red warbler specimens — Baird, too, owned one, also purchased from Bell — without comment in the list of United States birds he published in 1852. Just six years later, though, Baird bethought himself:

The propriety of introducing this species into the fauna of the United States is questionable. No specimens have as yet been found even as far north as northern Tamaulipas, in Mexico. As one of the birds described in Mr. Giraud’s work, however, it is entitled to a notice.

Baird made it clear just how much “notice” he thought it deserved by changing the locality of the skin in his own possession, USNM no. 561, from Texas to “Northern Mexico,” which he further altered in 1865 to “northeastern Mexico.” The Smithsonian now lists the location where the bird was collected simply as “unknown.”

Others had greater confidence in Bell and Giraud’s assignment of the red warbler to Texas. John Cassin in Philadelphia regretted that “no one of the several American naturalists who have visited Texas” since 1841 had seen the bird, but had no doubt that the Giraud specimen had come from there. Robert Ridgway, Baird’s protégé and eventual successor in the Smithsonian’s bird room, listed the species without comment in his 1881 Nomenclature, though six years later, in the Manual, he queried its assignment to southern Texas. In 1882, Elliott Coues denied the species a place in the main body of his Check List, but in the introduction expressed his belief that it had “doubtless” occurred north of the Rio Grande and could be expected to do so again — a notably more positive assessment than he had given the Giraud record in 1878.

Perhaps the most remarkable document to have come down to us in the matter is a paper published in the Ornithologist and Oologist for 1885 by Wells Cooke, in which Cooke argues vigorously for Giraud’s bona fides.

Considerable doubt has been expressed by ornithologists … but the recent great extension of our knowledge of the avifauna of the Southwestern United States is tending to inspire confidence in Giraud’s record.

Of the sixteen novelties Giraud described in 1841, Cooke reports that nine had meanwhile been encountered again in the United States, some of them turning out to be virtually common. Cooke finds the strongest support for Giraud’s credibility in a horned lark specimen acquired from Bell with the others; that bird, he says,

Mr. Henshaw has at last determined … is a tenable variety found only in Texas. Here we have a very strong argument in favor of Giraud’s good faith.

If he had still been walking this earth, Giraud would have been grateful. He himself “stoutly maintained to the day of his death that they [the specimens he had from Bell, including the red warbler] were taken from Texas.”

The moment of truth came with the publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s Check-List in 1886. This first edition comprised not only the species list but also the AOU’s Code of Nomenclature, a long and legalistic summary of the principles governing the naming of birds in that pre-ICZN day. Appropriately, most of those principles are very general in their formulation, taking in as many cases with as much flexibility as possible. It is jarring, then, to come across this decree, directed with painful specificity to a small set of records published by one man 45 years before:

That Giraud’s at present unconfirmed species of Texan birds be included in the List on Giraud’s authority.

This, of course, included the red warbler, assigned AOU number 691 and its habitat given as Mexico and Texas. The committee responsible for the second edition of the Check-list, published in 1895, expressly reasserted the appropriateness of including Giraud’s Texas species, and our warbler is right there in the same place it had occupied a decade earlier.

By 1908, however, as the AOU was preparing to issue the Check-list in a third edition, minds had been changed. In that year’s Supplement, the committee announced unequivocally and with a pair of gratuitous quotation marks that no. 691, the red warbler, was

to be expunged from the List, as based exclusively upon Giraud’s unconfirmed “Texas” records.

When the 1910 Check-list appeared, the introduction’s list of “the principal changes in the production of the new edition” was headed by “the elimination of all species included in former editions exclusively on the authority of Giraud as found in ‘Texas’.”

The AOU’s striking of the red warbler was greeted with general relief. Writing two years after the publication of the third edition of the Check-list, John Kern Strecker noted with snide satisfaction the discrediting of “Giraud’s ‘Texas’ species which should have long ago been excluded from the A.O.U. Check-list,” among them the red warbler. More recent works on the birds of Texas are unanimous in rejecting the species as a genuine member of the state’s wild avifauna: Oberholser calls its occurrence north of the Rio Grande “exceedingly questionable,” and neither edition of the T.O.S. Handbook so much as mentions the bird.

The red warbler is gone, off the table, vanished from Texas birding. But the indisputed occurrence — whatever its circumstances — of the bird in Arizona last week reminds us that it once loomed more prominent on the horizon of American ornithology’s expectations. Who knows? It might someday again.

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Apr
07

Vancouver Day Five: Steveston – Richmond Nature Park – Jericho Beach

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harbor seal

Perfect weather for harbor seals today here in Vancouver. For us, the rain was a welcome excuse for a late start — it was 9:30 by the time I picked Soheil up.

We started in Steveston, where mew gulls streamed over on their way, I suppose, to feast on earthworms in the wet fields. There was a small selection of ducks on the river, including red-breasted mergansers, and we enjoyed lingering close views of glaucous-winged and Olympic gulls loafing in the drizzle.

Olympic gull glaucous-winged

Soon it was too damp for us, so we headed to a place I’d never visited, Richmond Nature Park.

Richmond Nature Park in the rain

fox sparrow

We found comfortably dry seats beneath one of the picnic shelters, and watched as rufous and Anna hummingbirds darted between rain drops and fox and song sparrows scratched up the seed knocked from the feeders by the spotted towhees and purple finches.

purple finch

Among the many Oregon juncos was an especially pretty bird with symmetrical facial crescents, as if it were wearing a Prevost ground sparrow mask.

Oregon junco

To our surprise, at one point the sun came out, and the birds celebrated — with a bath, of course.

fox sparrow

sooty fox sparrow, Richmond, BC

We took advantage of the sudden change in the weather for a quick walk in what looks like a very birdy area indeed, then hopped back into the car for the drive to Jericho Beach.

20180407_142425

Just a short walk from our apartment in Kitsilano, Jericho was my neighborhood “patch” when we lived in Vancouver, and I was excited to see it again — even if the rain did set in again just as we arrived (and even if they still seem to have done nothing, absolutely nothing, about the off-leash dog problem).

20180407_142429

Though it wasn’t overly birdy, it was great to be walking a portion of my familiar route, watching pelagic cormorants and common goldeneye in the water of English Bay and bushtits in the blossoming trees. We were surprised to see only American wigeon on a first scan of the small flock, but eventually we found a single Eurasian wigeon on the edge of the pond; I remember excitedly reporting one here on our very first day in Vancouver, only to learn with some dispatch that the species is more common in this area than just about anywhere else in North America.

The rain grew steadier.

20180407_150030

Of all the places to seek shelter in the city, the UBC Museum of Anthropology may still be my favorite.

20180407_150936

There is vastly too much to look at in a single visit, and I long ago gave up trying, adopting the strategy instead of just looking at one object or two in the knowledge that I’ll be back. After all, it had been only seven years between this visit and the one before….

20180407_153020

Yes, tempus fugit, and this week fugit faster than most.

Birds

Canada Goose, Wood Duck, American Wigeon, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser

elagic Cormorant, Double-crested Cormorant

Common Loon

 

Great Blue Heron

Northern Harrier, Cooper Hawk, Bald Eagle

 

Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull

Rock Pigeon, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Mourning Dove

Anna’s Hummingbird, Rufous Hummingbird

Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker

Peregrine Falcon

Northwestern Crow, Common Raven

Violet-green Swallow, Purple Martin

Black-capped Chickadee

Bushtit

Pacific Wren, Bewick Wren

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

American Robin

European Starling

 

Oregon Towhee, Song Sparrow, Sooty Fox Sparrow, Oregon Junco, White-crowned Sparrow

Western Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird

House Finch, Purple Finch

Mammals

Eastern Gray Squirrel

European Rabbit

Harbor Seal

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Apr
05

Vancouver Day Three: Swartz Bay Ferry – Tsawassen Jetty – Stanley Park

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Swartz Bay

Dark, dim, and drizzly: the perfect day to bird from the comfort of a ferry across the Salish Sea. Soheil and I caught the first sailing from Tsawassen this morning, then rode straight back, giving us two shots at Active Pass.

California sea lion

We didn’t see the particular mammals for which this crossing is famous, but harbor seals and California sea lions are a treat even when the black and white cetaceans stand you up. If birding was not quite as good as I’ve seen it on the route, it’s still always fun to see good numbers of pigeon guillemots and rhinoceros auklets, along with a very few marbled murrelets and just two common murres.

pigeon guillemot

Surf, white-winged, and black scoters were in good supply, too, as were Bonaparte and mew gullsPacific loons were scarce, only three or four total, but what they lacked in abundance they made up for in nice close views on our way back to the mainland. Brandt cormorants were present in small numbers on the channel markers; our best views of Brandts were actually at the Tsawassen terminal, where a few perched on the breakwaters among the abundant pelagic cormorants.

black turnstone

The rain was steadier still when we arrived back at Tsawassen, so we decided to bird the lower jetty road from the car. The experience was very different from yesterday: only a handful of black brant were in sight, and even gull numbers were low. Black oystercatchers were still carrying on in the air above us, though, groups of three performing their “piping” displays above the road and the water, wing beats shallow and stiff and wide-open bills pointing to the ground. And with the tide falling, we found a flock of 22 black turnstones on the cobble beach, where they fed utterly unconcerned about us and only slightly wary of the two off-leash dogs running the road.

black turnstone

We’d had an early start to the day, and were wet and cold in spite of the layers we’d piled on, so pulled in to Circle O for a very late breakfast. Time and traffic looked good for a drive across Vancouver and a visit to Stanley Park, where I hoped there might be some birds at the few parking lots with good views.

Stanley Park

Unfortunately, the rain had grown even heavier, and we had to limit ourselves to brief excursions out of the car, where we saw just the usual birds: Barrows and common goldeneye and surf scoters were the best of the ducks, while our passerine encounters were nearly non-existent.

Tomorrow we’re supposed to be back to Vancouver sunshine, so we’ve planned to do a couple of sites where we can walk our legs back into functioning after a day on and in vehicles. Should be fantastic, as each day so far has been.

Birds

Black Brant, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, American Wigeon, Mallard, Green-winged Teal, Greater Scaup, Surf Scoter, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, Barrow’s Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Common Merganser

Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Common Loon

Horned Grebe

Double-crested Cormorant, Brandt Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant

Great Blue Heron

Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk

Black Oystercatcher

Black Turnstone

Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Murrelet, Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot

Mew Gull, California Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Bonaparte Gull

Rock Pigeon

Northwestern Crow

Black-capped Chickadee

American Robin

European Starling

Oregon Towhee, Song Sparrow, Oregon Junco

 

Mammals

Eastern Gray Squirrel

California Sea Lion, Harbor Seal

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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 Spophila 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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Mar
24

Other People’s Bird Books: A New Jersey Family

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This is Montclair State University’s copy of John Francis McDermott‘s edition of the 1843 journal of Edward Harris, friend, patron, and frequent field companion of John James Audubon.

Eleanor Darrach Sappington to D. d'Arcy Northwood

Like most of that library’s general natural history titles from mid-century, this book was a gift from J. D’Arcy and Anne Ardrey Northwood, familiar names indeed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey birding circles: D’Arcy was the first curator of Mill Grove, and the couple’s “ramshackle cottage” at Cape May would eventually become New Jersey Audubon’s Northwood Center.

But this particular volume has another layer of provenance, attested by the inscription to D’Arcy Northwood from Eleanor Darrach Sippington. Good old Google helped me pin her down as one of the six children of Susannah Ustick Harris and Alfred Darrach; Susannah Harris was one of the four children of Edward Harris and his second wife (and first cousin), Mary G. Ustick.

What made my smile especially broad on reading the inscription was the fact that I had the pleasure of dinner with another of Harris’s descendants a couple of years ago in the Bahamas. She is certainly too young to have known her cousin Eleanor, but the connection shows once again just how small the world of birding can be, not just in space but over time.

 

 

 

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