Archive for MEGA: Great Birds


A Fork-tailed First

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Audubon’s famous Fork-tailed Flycatcher, collected in New Jersey in June 1832, gets all the press.

But that wasn’t the first fork-tail recorded in the US — or even, amazingly enough, the first for New Jersey.

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Sometime before 1825 — the usual date in the secondary literature seems to be “around 1820,” while Boyle gives “around 1812” —

a beautiful male, in full plumage … was shot near Bridgetown, New-Jersey, at the extraordinary season of the first week in December, and was presented by Mr. J. Woodcraft, of that town, to Mr. Titian Peale, who favoured me with the opportunity of examining it.

“Me,” of course, is Charles Lucian Bonaparte, writing in his American Ornithologyfor which Peale also provided the rather stiffly elegant plate reproduced above.

When James Bond set out, almost 75 years ago now, to determine the subspecific identity of US Fork-tailed Flycatchers, he was unable to locate any of the specimens taken before 1834, “if any exist.” But even absent a skin, Bonaparte’s detailed description of the Bridgeton bird allows us to pin it down almost 200 years later:

… the three outer [primaries] have a very extraordinary and profound sinus or notch on their inner webs, near the tip, so as to terminate in a slender process.

That is enough, according to Zimmer, to identify the Woodcraft specimen as a member of the subspecies savana (then known as tyrannus).

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That austral migrant, abundant in its range, is responsible for almost all northerly records of this species, though Zimmer identified one New Jersey specimen, of unknown date and locality, as sanctaemartae (a determination adjudged only “possible” by Pyle).

To Bonaparte, it was “evident” that his specimen “must have strayed from its native country under the influence of extraordinary circumstances.”

That’s for sure.


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Who Discovered That Warbler?

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Now here’s a true mega: A Cape May Warbler, the second for Britain, is being seen on Unst, that delightfully named island in the Shetlands.

Inevitably, the oldtimers have already started reminiscing about that much brighter, male Cape May that set up shop in Paisley, Scotland, in June 1977. And, inevitably, journalists and others have been trotting out the old canard:

Interestingly, the ornithologist who first discovered the species, Alexander Wilson, was born and spent his youth in Paisley….

But our warbler had been known to science for half a century by the time Wilson learned of its existence. In 1789, more than two decades before Wilson put pen to paper about what he mistakenly considered a “new and beautiful little species,” Gmelin knew the bird — and gave it the nicely descriptive name Motacilla tigrina in his edition of Linnaeus’s Systema.

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The real eye-opener here is — or should be — all the earlier citations Gmelin is able to adduce. EdwardsBrisson, Buffon, Pennant, and Latham had all described this warbler in the mid- and late eighteenth century, a couple of their accounts even accompanied by paintings.

Edwards, 1758

Edwards, 1758

Brisson, 1763

Brisson, 1763

So much for the notion that Wilson — who died 200 years ago this year — was the “discoverer” of the species.

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Indeed, not even Wilson himself, though laboring under the notion that the warbler was unknown when he first saw it, claimed the bird as his own discovery. In his American Ornithology, he puts it as clearly as anyone possibly could:

This new and beautiful little species was discovered in a maple swamp, in Cape May county, not far from the coast, by Mr. George Ord….

The latest book-length study of Wilson, Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson, points this out — and identifies what has meanwhile become the authoritative source of the subsequent error, namely, Audubon’s account of the species in the Ornithological Biography:

Of this beautiful species, which was first described by Wilson, very little is known…. I am indebted for the fine specimens … to my generous friend Edward Harris….

Now there’s an irony. Audubon devoted so much energy to denying Wilson‘s priority in other cases, but here, thanks to his profound disdain for George Ord (or to sloppy reading and even sloppier bibliographic work), he created a myth that is still being retold nearly two hundred years later.

But we all know better. Three cheers for Edwards and the rest!


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Let’s Get Metaphysical

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There are some great birds on this week’s Arizona RBA, everything from Sinaloa Wren to Yellow-throated Vireo, from Ruby-throated Hummingbird to Plain-capped Starthroat; but what has most caught the eye of discerning locals is the report of a very young juvenile Short-tailed Hawk above Madera Canyon. This is still a very rare species in the southwestern US, and the thought that this bird might have been hatched in the Santa Ritas is an exciting one, potentially extending the breeding range of the species quite a ways north and west from its strongholds (a relative term in connection with a bird this scarce!) in the Chiricahuas and Huachucas.

There can be no doubt about the identification, of course (the observer is one of the very best), but it is nice that he was able to photograph the hawk, too. And here’s where things get interesting, to me at least. The RBA, well and conscientiously crafted this week by a couple of excellent and thoughtful birders, pronounces this photograph the first “physical documentation” of the species in the Santa Ritas.

Wait a minute. “Physical”? Did Dave shoot the poor thing?

Of course he didn’t. What the compilers meant to do here was to contrast photographic documentation and written documentation. I won’t belabor the fact (as I usually do) that photographs should be viewed as only supporting material for written documentation, but I will point out that there is nothing “physical” about a photograph–or a sound recording–or at least, that whatever “physicality” those forms of representation participate in is shared by written documentations.

What’s “physical” and what’s “immaterial” in this photo?

It’s my belief, my assertion, my unyielding insistence that only the paper-towel-shrouded corpse (a House Sparrow that gave its life, reluctantly, for science) is ontologically “superior” to the written documentation, and that the photo on the cd and the image on the slide and the recording on the cassette tape (remember cassette tapes?) are in fact less “physical” than any of the other objects and artifacts they share the screen with.

Anyone who disagrees with me is, hm, wrong.

Obviously, I hope that my readers (both of them) are skilled at detecting irony and (slight) overstatement; but I’m equally hopeful that someone “out there” will propose a better, more precise formulation than “physical documentation” for the sorts of evidence represented by photographs and sound recordings. Be prepared: I’ve already thought of the obvious alternatives, and am ready to reject them all with vehemence.

A big smile for the rest of the weekend!

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