Archive for New Jersey Birding



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Shorebirding at Brigantine was fun this afternoon — as always. The rarity highlight was certainly the alternate-plumaged Hudsonian godwit at the end of the day (too far for pictures), but I was just as happy to see my first western sandpipers for the fall, a dozen birds scattered among the semipalmated and least sandpipers.

western sandpiper


Who could fail to love these beautiful Arctic wanderers?


Lake Red

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Mourning Dove

Many pigeon species have strikingly colored feet when they are in breeding condition, and the familiar mourning dove is no exception.

Ridgway calls the tarsus and toes of adult males “lake red,” which he describes in his early Nomenclature of Colors as

purplish red … not so intense as crimson (Medium tint of madder-carmine.)

Ridgwya 1886, Nomenclature

What does your eye say?



Looking for Chapman

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Mark Twain saw a lot of the outdoors over a long life that took him from the Mississippi to California to Connecticut. As I think back on what I’ve read of Twain, though, nature — Nature — doesn’t play much of a role at all. Landscape, even so dominant a feature as Huckleberry Finn’s river, never seems to be more than narrative convenience or metaphoric convention.

I was surprised, then, to find a notable selection of natural history titles among the books Twain donated to the library in Redding, Connecticut, in the last years of his life.

It turns out that most had been gifts to his daughter Jean.

Screenshot 2014-06-10 13.38.54

On her early death in 1909, Jean Clemens’s father wrote that

She was a loyal friend to all animals, and she loved them all, birds, beasts, and everything — even snakes — an inheritance from me. She knew all the birds; she was high up in that lore.

And she learned her bird lore the way most people did in the first years of the twentieth century: from the works of Frank Michler Chapman.

Jean Clemens owned Chapman’s Warblers and his 1903 Handbook, two works that remained standards for birders (and ornithologists) for decades.

Chapman, Handbook

Today, however, on Chapman’s 150th birthday, even those of us who remember those books and his many others can forget how prominent this ornithologist, conservationist, and author was in his day. In the first decades of the twentieth century, natural history hobbyists referred to their “Chapman” with the same matter-of-factness with which we today cite our “Sibley” or our “Peterson,” and by 1900, as he would later write,

so many were the requests for lectures … that it was not possible to accept all of them.

Think about it this way: if Frank Chapman had lived into our celebrity-tainted age, it’s easy to predict which bird bloggers would be elbowing their shrill way to a “selfy” with him.

Chapman’s contributions to the culture and development of the American Museum, where he served — and eventually reigned, as “The Chief” — for a full 52 years, are well discussed by, among others, François Vuilleumier, who wrote on the sixtieth anniversary of Chapman’s death

Chapman was a truly remarkable individual, whose full mark on ornithology remains to be documented,

a rewarding task for a young historian with time on her hands.

Meanwhile, in this sesquicentennial year, I’m more interested for the moment by Chapman’s life on this side of the Hudson. Even most New Jersey birders seem to think of him as a New Yorker, but Chapman was born in West Englewood, just back from the Palisades, and he was buried in Englewood’s Brookside Cemetery on his death in November 1945.

Brookside Cemetery, Chapman plot

So what do Frank Chapman’s boyhood haunts look like now?

“I lived,” Chapman wrote in his Autobiography, “in the place of my birth until I reached middle age.”

Chapman, Autobiography, birthplace, Summer 1864

A fine house it was, too, built by Chapman’s wealthy parents a year before his birth. This house, and the one that replaced it after a fire in 1890, occupied an old fruit farm on Teaneck Road at West Englewood Avenue.

Englewood and Teaneck intersection

On forty suburban acres, the family kept horses, pigs, poultry, and cows (and though Chapman neglects to mention it, the staff to care for them). The house and barn and other outbuildings were “the scene of many boyish adventures” for the privileged only child.

ARgonne Park, Teaneck, NJ

If I read the maps correctly, part of the Chapman estate is now part of Argonne Park in Teaneck.

ARgonne Park, Teaneck, NJ

The Chapmans’ neighbor to the south was William Walter Phelps, owner of the largest estate in the area. Phelps served as a congressman and as envoy to Germany and to Austria-Hungary, but his great love was trees. Chapman writes

This estate was posted and became, in effect, a bird sanctuary years before this term was used. Whether as gunner or bird student, this was the hunting-ground of my boyhood.

Chapman, Autobiography, chestnuts in Phelps Woods

The Phelps mansion, too, burnt, in 1889, but was not rebuilt. The ruins were finally demolished in 1925, and Teaneck constructed a new municipal complex on the site of Chapman’s boyhood playground.

West of the Chapman farm,

there were extensive forests penetrated only by wood roads, and a brook where trout could be found. Beyond, on the slopes reaching up to the crest of the hills overlooking the valley of the Hackensack, were fields partly grown with red cedar, bayberry and sweet gum.

The forested lands around the train station, Chapman recalled, were

as good collecting ground as there was in the New York City region. The woods surrounding it stretched for miles north and south, forming a highway for the diurnal journeys of migrating birds.

When Chapman showed those woods to a respected older colleague one June evening, John Burroughs listened to the chorus of veerys and wood thrushes and turned to his companion to say simply,

No wonder you love birds!

Two slender slivers of wooded parkland now flank the railroad station where the Sage of Slabsides disembarked. Neither remnant is especially promising for the birder.

Englewood and Teaneck intersection

Chapman himself saw the future.

Sadly I saw the forests fall and the fields erupt flimsy cottages… I had not the heart to witness the rapid dismemberment of haunts on which I had held a “rambler’s lease” so long that they seemed to be mine.

The ornithologist abandoned his boyhood home and moved a couple of miles east into the city of Englewood. There, too, though,

the changes came so rapidly that each week-end found some cherished shrine invaded or destroyed,

and the Chapmans “took refuge in New York City,” with periodic escapes to the Catskills or to Panama. Not until death overtook them — Fanny Embury Chapman first, in September 1944, followed by her husband in November 1945 — did the Chapmans return to Englewood for good.

Brookside Cemetery, Chapman plot

Mark Twain and Jean Clemens had been dead a full generation by then. Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide was almost a dozen years old.

But Frank Chapman even in death remained a powerful force in American conservation and birding. He deserves to be remembered, especially by those of us who live in the state where he first saw the light of day.

Brookside Cemetery, Chapman plot


The Cardinals of Teaneck

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ARgonne Park, Teaneck, NJ

I stepped out of the car at Argonne Park early this damp, dark morning to a familiar sound, the scratching chips of a family of northern cardinals.

Northern Cardinal

Nice, but no big deal AD 2014.

The same birds would have been a big deal indeed just 75 years ago, when the northern limit of this familiar species’ range was still in southern New Jersey. Indeed, the neighborhood’s most famous birder did not encounter cardinals until he visited Milledgeville, Georgia, in the spring of 1872, in

a spacious garden having flower beds bordered with hyacinths…. It was in this garden, after a shower, that I saw my first Cardinal…. Doubtless the sun was shining, for the brilliance of its colors made a profound impression.

Screenshot 2014-06-11 12.51.45

A very profound impression, and if there is such a thing as a “spark bird,” this, the northern cardinal, lit a light that would shine on American ornithology and birding for the next more than 70 years.

More tomorrow.


Birding Sussex County

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Three in the morning comes early these days, but somehow, for some unknown reason, I find myself just able to roll out of bed when I know that the reward for getting up in the dark is birds at dawn.

Fifty miles and 1700 feet of elevation later, I arrived at High Point just before 5:00. I stood, shivering slightly, in the parking lot, watching those rosy fingers break the eastern sky and listening to eastern phoebes and chestnut-sided warblers: it’s breeding season in Sussex County.

Stokes State Forest landscape

The rest of our congenial band was there right on time, and we set off to see what the lavishly leafed woods might hold. The sonic background, at dawn and all day, was provided by gray catbirds and red-eyed vireos, and the day’s first great crested flycatcher and indigo bunting greeted us as we emerged from the dark forests of the Appalachian Trail to bird the famous ATT tower that two decades ago saw the first reliable nesting pair of common ravens in the state in my lifetime. Ravens can be seen essentially anywhere in north Jersey now, but every High Point visit starts with a pilgrimage to the founder pair — and, today, the two fledglings they were so noisily guarding against intrusion.

The sun well up and the air slowly starting to warm, we moved on down Sawmill Road and took a longer walk. It was unusually quiet for the first week of June, but veeries, yellow warblers, and eastern towhees were in abundant evidence, and after a few minutes when I wondered what on earth was going on, we finally managed to find our first pair of cerulean warblers along the trail; the female flew in and gave the usual fleeting glimpses, and the male eventually flew across the path where we stood to give excellent views. Uncharacteristically, these were the only ceruleans we saw all day, though we heard another half a dozen males or so along our route.

After a quick stop at the monument to pick up the late arrivals, it was off to Kuser Bog, the real jewel in the High Point crown.

Pink lady's slipper

Lady’s-slippers and red efts kept our minds off of the relative lack of birds on the way in, but once we were at the bog, no distraction was necessary. Northern waterthrushes sang loud and close, and to my surprise, on actually allowed itself to be watched in the act: this bird is always conspicuous in the summertime bog, but rarely visible at all, much less perched up and showing off like this noisy male was.

Birding time always accelerates mid-morning, so we tore ourselves away and headed south through the woodlands to Stokes State Forest. A northern parula welcomed us to Ocquittunk, where the day’s first yellow-throated vireo sang invisible from the tall trees. I couldn’t turn up a Louisiana waterthrush at Kittle Field, so we went on to Stony Lake in search of Blackburnian warblers. It took a while, but we eventually heard a singing male, frustratingly close and always out of sight.

As so often, though, the search, futile in terms of flame-throated Setophaga, turned up something we weren’t looking for. Blue-headed vireos are scarce breeders even in Sussex County, so I was delighted to discover one taking caterpillars in a hemlock.

Doubly delighted when it swallowed its meal and started gathering cobwebs and willow fuzz.

And triply, quadruply, infinitely delighted when its mate flew to the nest still under construction in a nearby tree. I’d never found a nest in New Jersey, and to watch this one a-building was the highlight of my day, especially when the builders nearly disappeared into the fluffy half-globe, just their tails sticking out as they adjusted something visible only to themselves in the deep cup.

Almost twelve hours in, we — I — started to feel the afternoon drowse coming on. Our final stop was Van Ness Road, where prairie warblers stumbled up the scale and a broad-winged hawk soared overhead. A funny song, bzz-bzz-bzz-bzzzzz, like a golden-winged warbler standing on its head, turned out to issue from the mouth and syrinx of a perfectly “normal”-looking blue-winged warbler, but who can tell….

The croaking of a distant common raven seemed an appropriate bookend to the day. As we watched the sky, it flew closer and was joined by another — and then, suddenly, both of them were energetically mobbing an immature bald eagle. Just a dozen years ago, either of those species would have been noteworthy on a warm Sussex County afternoon.

And they’re still far from everyday, especially when they’re interacting so dramatically just over your head. Just another day in North Jersey? Yes. And I’ll take a thousand more like it, please.      

Even if I have to get up early.

I think this is the complete list for the day; I trust that the trip participants will let me know if I’ve left anything off. 

Stokes State Forest landscape


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