Archive for MEGA: Great Birds
You’d have to be pretty oblivious not to know about this fall’s “invasion” of Snowy Owls into New York and New Jersey. Its timing thus far has been almost identical to that of the legendary (but very real) incursion of 1926 — we’ll just have to wait to see whether the numbers rise to those almost incredible levels.
The comparison between this year and that will soon be commonplace, I’m sure, and I hope that it serves to remind us of something most of us have forgot.
That same December of 1926 — December 19, to be exact — also brought a Northern Hawk Owl to central New Jersey. (My photograph is from coastal British Columbia, and represents a full fifty percent of the hawk owls I’ve seen in my life.)
Maybe this is the year for another.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
The real eye-opener here is — or should be — all the earlier citations Gmelin is able to adduce. Edwards, Brisson, 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.
So much for the notion that Wilson — who died 200 years ago this year — was the “discoverer” of the species.
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!
It was the end of June 1832, and in a meadow south of Camden, New Jersey, Audubon encountered a bird he’d never seen — a rare enough event at that stage in his career.
He shot it, or rather “obtained” it, and was able to confirm the identification of this New Jersey Fork-tailed Flycatcher by comparing it to a skin, “much faded,” taken in South America and held in the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.
This species now shows up in New Jersey almost annually. What still amazes, though, is that Audubon, in those long-ago days before air travel and the internet, saw no fewer than four individuals of this species in the US.
at Henderson in Kentucky, I had one of these birds brought to me which had been caught by the hand…. While near the city of Natchez, in the State of Mississippi, in August 1822, I saw two others high in the air….
In an age before vagrancy was understood or even much thought about, Audubon observed that such
individuals appear only at long intervals, and in far distant districts, as if they had lost themselves.
He was right.
Alison had a morning assignation in Newark, and I was due in Philadelphia in the early afternoon: How better to fill the space and time between than with a little birding? Central New Jersey has been as hot as a spot gets lately, and the weather–snow here, slush in Newark, dank drizzle everywhere else–doesn’t make much of a difference when your target birds come complete with drive-up addresses.
By 9:00 Gellert and I were slowly cruising up and down the condo-corn ecotone in Hightstown, sorting through the Canada Geese in search of anything bright-backed or pale-footed. Nada, and within the hour I was bored (the dog had reached that same state quite a bit earlier). Time to move south a bit in search of the New Egyptian plovers.
It didn’t look too good there at first, either. I stopped to check the first, smaller pasture, and found nothing; the signs grew even worse as I turned the corner and saw a birder car moving–moving–slowly along the road a ways ahead of me. Even in these days of tick-and-run birding, you stop the vehicle if you see a rarity this rare. I scanned the muddy floodplain of the little creek, to no avail, and started creeping along behind the other car–which suddenly came to a manic Keystone State Kop stop and disgorged a flailing tangle of arms and tripod legs.
Huh, bet they found ‘em.
I was much too cool to speed up (and the birds had been sitting in the same mud on the same pasture for three days at that point), but as soon as I pulled up behind the others, I could see the white bellies way out on the field. Scope up, all-too water-permeable cap on, and my heart leapt up as I beheld three gorgeous Northern Lapwings in Ocean County, New Jersey. The birds stayed distant, occasionally wandering into the sight line of the two Sandhill Cranes just across the fence, and did their lapwingy things while we watched for a little more than an hour.
Gellert’s baleful glance and the forward speed of the hands on my watch told me it was time to go, and I spent the rest of the rainy drive to Philadelphia wondering why I felt the way I did about the morning’s mixed success. I’ve seen thousands–yes, literally, thousands–of Northern Lapwings over the years, and the only living Pink-footed Goose I’ve ever seen remains the superannuated bird (surely dead by now) bird at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo. The lapwings were an ABA bird, my first in that badly gerrymandered listing region, but the goose, had I found it, would have been (gasp) a lifer, my first wild one anywhere in the world or elsewhere, as Jack Siler used to put it.
So why did my delight in the lapwings–common, familiar, unmistakable, and just a little out of geographic place–so much outweigh my only mild disappointment at failing to find the goose–scarce, new, and subtle? How had my birding pleasure been increased by seeing the one so much more than it had been diminished by missing the other?
We think of birding as being all about novelty. And I think for all of us, it is–at the beginning. I remember years’ worth of early mornings when I itched to see something I’d never seen before, when I measured the success of a birding month by the new year birds, yard birds, life birds. And this time of year, with the calendar still freshly turned, I still play that game for a while.
But most of us outgrow it. Returns eventually diminish if all you’re out there for is something you haven’t had before–true, probably, of many things other than birding, too. And even the infrequent life bird, such as the wild goose I chased would have been, can come to mean less, to feel like an isolated event that just doesn’t fit into the narrative of a birding career.
The birds that mean, the sightings that move the story of our lives along, come to be those that come with a context. Some life birds do that: my first Bridled Sparrow, or my first Spoon-billed Sandpiper, or my first White-faced Storm-Petrel will all be “new,” but I think when the day comes, I’ll watch each of those birds against a mental background of longing, expectation, and hope. Other, equally flashy birds don’t matter nearly as much.
The Northern Lapwing loomed large on my horizon of hope from the very beginning, from the first time I opened my field guide to see an enormous green and purple plover waggling its unlikely crest at me. And when I finally saw my first, in the summer of 1986, the thrill of a life bird was more than matched by the satisfaction of bringing long anticipation into line with the even wilder reality of the beast. Every time I see one now, in the Old World or (now, at long last) the New, the sight (and the sound, oh the sound) takes me back to damp spring mornings on a bicycle.
And Pink-footed Goose? The bird no doubt resonates in the emotions of some, but much as I’d like to see it, the gap my first will fill will be on paper. I have nowhere to put this one but a checklist.