Archive for New Jersey Birding

Dec
16

Mahogany Stifftails

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Ruddy duck

The New Jersey Meadowlands were chilly and dim this morning, but the birding was a lot of fun anyway. There were impressive numbers of waterfowl on the marshes and impoundments, among them a dozen ruddy ducks, one of the few anatid species whose numbers in the mid-Atlantic seem to be declining.

Not only is this chunky, big-headed duck one of our most attractive, it also provides the answer to any number of birding trivia questions:

Which New Jersey duck is named for a Caribbean island?

Which duck lays the largest eggs for its body size?

Which male duck has ….

Well, we’ll leave that one right there. But there’s still the matter of this captivating species’ official English name, a name commemorating only a briefly held plumage of only one of the sexes and far less evocative than almost any of the dozens of other, popular names this duck has borne.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.27.48

The canonical diagnosis of this species was published by Gmelin in 1788, who named it Anas jamaicensis:

A duck barred dusky and rusty yellow, sooty above with a dark crown, the chin and throat white spotted with black, the vent and rump barred dusky and reddish.

Obviously, Gmelin did not assign this duck the English name “ruddy,” but he does cite an earlier description, in John Latham’s General Synopsis. Gmelin, it turns out, had simply translated the English account, which Latham based on what sounds like a non-breeding male. Neither ornithologist, obviously, had any notion of the spectacular breeding plumage of the species; indeed, Latham tells us expressly that his Jamaica specimen was taken in the winter, when ruddy ducks aren’t.

And now things get interesting. If we move forward through the editions of the Systema, we find the name “ruddy duck” in Turton’s English translation of 1802 — where it’s applied to a different bird.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 16.48.32

This is clearly a description of the ruddy shelduck; for our bird, Turton — like Gmelin — uses Latham’s rather unimaginative “Jamaica shoveler,” a name that we might still be using today had Alexander Wilson not made what he thought was an exciting discovery in Peale’s Philadelphia museum: a

very rare Duck was shot, some years ago on the river Delaware, and appears to be an entire new species.

Wilson Ruddy duck vol 8, p 128

Wilson was “at first inclined to believe” that his new duck was identical with Latham’s Jamaica shoveler,

but a more careful examination of both satisfied me that they cannot be the same, as the present [species] differs considerably in color…. front, crown, and back part of the neck down nearly to the back [are] black; rest of the neck, whole back, scapulars, flanks and tail coverts deep reddish brown, the color of bright mahogany.

That description confirms what Wilson’s engraving already demonstrates: namely, that one of Peale’s birds was a male in his bright breeding plumage. I think we can forgive Wilson his error in deciding that the Philadelphia ducks were “non-descript,” a deficiency he remedied by naming them himself in the pages of the American Ornithology.

Screenshot 2014-12-16 17.28.40

The drake’s mahogany upperparts were so striking that Wilson memorialized them in both the English and scientific names he assigned the species. And the names themselves seemed so apt that Latham’s “Jamaica shoveler” essentially disappeared after 1814.

Anas jamaicensis, however, would survive. Unlike vernacular names, scientific names are governed by the law of priority — also known as dibs: as soon as two “species” are known to be one, the first binomial is applied. So who figured out that the Jamaican shoveler and Wilson’s Pennsylvanian duck were the same?

Stay tuned.

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Dec
15

The Lister’s Punctilio

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Common Raven

I don’t like grocery shopping. At all. But Alison is even busier than usual this time of year, so it has been my lot of late to be dodging cars in parking lots and carts in narrow aisles. No fun at all.

This morning’s expedition was better, though. As I stepped out of the car, senses alert, a big black bird flew across low: a common raven. No longer rare, no longer unexpected, this species is always great to see, especially in the urban wilds of northern New Jersey.

But here’s my dilemma.

Brookdale Park is just two blocks from our local Shoprite (grocery store names!), and the tops of its tall old oaks and tulips dominate the view to the west. Which is where this morning’s raven came from.

Brookdale happens to be the only site for which I am keeping careful lists nowadays. And I’ve been expecting a common raven to show up.

But I can’t “count” this one for the park. Neither the bird nor I was in or over Brookdale at the time of the sighting, so the gap in the list remains.

Silly, yes. Arbitrary, yes. But it wouldn’t be a game if it didn’t have rules.

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Nov
27

An Odd Sparrow

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unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

A cool day in late November — especially a cool day in late November with cold and big snows predicted for the next day — is perfect for spending a little time with the backyard sparrows. The roster Tuesday morning was pretty much what was expected in northern New Jersey: lots of slate-colored juncos and white-throated sparrows, with the odd chipping, song, and fox sparrow to liven things up.

One bird, this bird, stood out in the feeder flock.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

It was more than superficially junco-like, with a dull gray hood, white belly, and pink bill, but the pattern and color of the underparts were off. The dull olive-tan of the breast sides and flanks seemed wrong for not just for a slate-colored but for any junco, and the color reached quite far in towards the vent in a wide band, almost isolating the white undertail coverts. At some angles, the bird seemed to show a “color corner” between the hood and the breast sides, but at others just the usual smudgy blend shown by brown, immature or female, slate-colored juncos. Some of the rear flank feathers seemed to have very fine, just barely visible dark shaft streaks.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

A closer look revealed a couple of other oddities. The ground color of the back seemed unexceptional, but its neat pattern of prominent but fine black streaks was worth a second look.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

A bit of faint, diffuse streaking isn’t all that unusual in brown juncos this time of year, but these markings — darker in life than in the photos I took through my dirty window — struck me as beyond the pale.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

I have no good, tightly-focused images of the wing pattern, but the one above at least gives a hint of the inconspicuous dotted wing bars; the tips of the median coverts weren’t always even this visible, but several of the greaters on each wing showed very small white triangular tips, creating a short, jagged “droplet” wing bar on the gray wing.

unidentified apparent hybrid sparrow

The bird’s tertials seemed more or less normal, with the typical broad buffy edgings of brown slate-colored juncos, if perhaps just a little more white towards the tip of the outer web than most.

While the other juncos were setting off their feathered flash bulbs all around the yard, this bird kept its tail resolutely folded. Though I could never contort myself into a position from which I could see the underside of the tail, I eventually had several reasonable if brief looks at the bird in flight, when it showed no white in the outer rectrices. Given my split-second view of the bird as it dashed into the arborvitae, I’d be hard pressed to prove that it actually even had all of its rectrices, but the ones I could see were dark.

With the growing suspicion that this might be a bird of mixed ancestry (put that way, which bird is not?), I worked hard to imagine the shadow of a face or throat pattern. The hood seemed unremarkably gray, with some dull rusty shading and streaking at some angles. There was an occasionally noticeable paler patch on each side of the neck beneath the auriculars, a feature shown by many brown slate-colored juncos.

The strangest thing about the bird’s head plumage was the area around the eye. The lore was decidedly blacker than the rest of the already dark head, no big deal in a slate-colored junco, but that color continued back to surround the eye and to end in an odd broad point behind it.

The bird was minutely larger than some of the other juncos in the flock, but still obviously much smaller than the white-throated sparrows.

If this is not just an even weirder than usual junco, what might it be? There are numerous records and reports of apparent hybrids between slate-colored juncos and white-throated sparrows, among them the winter birds well photographed and well described by Mark Szantyr a few years ago in Connecticut.

Nearly all of the documented individuals assigned to this hybrid combination are obviously, conspicuously intermediate in appearance, combining a white throat and lore with a gray breast and head. Some are more subtly marked, such as the one photographed by Szantyr and almost entirely junco-like but for a single brown, white-tipped greater covert. And surely others, perhaps the majority of them, are even more cryptically clad, indiscernible to humans and maybe even to their flock mates.

If in fact this odd sparrow was a hybrid or introgressant, I’m not sure we can tell with any real certainty which species might be lurking in its family tree. To my eye, the very fine back pattern and incomplete vent strap immediately suggested not a Zonotrichia but rather a Lincoln’s sparrow, but we will probably never know.

We’ll probably never know. But it’s always fun to look close; if it weren’t, we wouldn’t bother looking at all.

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Oct
31

The Freckled Heron of Sandy Hook

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American bittern

To say that Joan and I had an enjoyable day yesterday would be accurate but just a mite misleading, suggesting as it might that there can be any other kind of birding day at Sandy Hook in late October. In fact, they’re all good at that marvelous site in this wondrous season. But not all begin, as ours did yesterday, with a fine American bittern flushing from the spartina and landing in the open, where we left it, no doubt still thinking itself invisible, after long admiration.

Every time I see this species, which is never often enough, I smile at the circumstances of its discovery. Like the ring-necked duck, this big brown heron is an American endemic as a breeder — but the type locality of the species is in Europe, in the delightfully named Piddleton, England, where the first specimen known to science was “rescued by accident from oblivion” nearly a decade after it had been shot by a pheasant hunter.

Formal description of American bittern

George Montagu, who in 1813 first named and described our bird, tells us that a certain Mr. Cunningham encountered the type specimen

in the autumn of 1804…. between the broad ditches of some rich water meadows, about half a mile distant from the river Froome… and he shot it.

Cunningham, believing that his prize was a mere great bittern,

sent it to Colonel George, of Penryn in Cornwall, who at that time was making a collection of birds.

George — otherwise known as a local conchologist — had the bird “badly prepared by a foreigner” and, inexplicably, labeled it as a little bittern. When George’s collections were sold, Montagu purchased the mount:

Our astonishment was very considerable at receiving this bird for the Little Bittern, to which it is no ways allied either in size or colour…. we are not surprised that a sportsman should be mistaken in supposing it to be the Common Bittern,

but to the eyes of the specialist, it was immediately clear to Montagu that he had before him

an extremely rare and unknown bird in England, and apparently a nondescript.

Montagu 1813 Supplement, American bittern

Montagu named this new bird Ardea lentiginosa, the freckled heron. Interestingly, in 1813 he still seems to have harbored some mild doubt about whether his “nondescript” was truly new:

we are at present unable to refer this bird to any known species, and yet it is probably a female of some one already described.

That admission of uncertainty almost doomed the name lentiginosa to obscurity. Charles Bonaparte, 25 years after the death of the Piddleton bird, did not even acknowledge Montagu’s epithet, preferring instead Alexander Wilson’s Ardea minor, a name that had not appeared in print until January 1814.

Fortunately for almighty priority, Joseph Sabine, in the zoological appendix to Franklin’s 1823 Narrative, noticed that Montagu’s freckled Ardea was in fact the bittern of Canada and the United States, and restored to it the name given it by the British ornithologist, lentiginosa,

which specific name, though given under such peculiarly unscientific circumstances, being the first which had actually been applied to it, must of course remain.

And it does remain, and behind it remains a story that makes seeing one of these great brown herons even better.

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Oct
30

Two White-throated Sparrows

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White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow

Both photographed here in northern New Jersey on the same late October day.

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