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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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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