Archive for New Jersey


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.


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.


Two Days in Cape May

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Yes, I’m still batting 1000 when it comes to fork-tailed flycatchers in New Jersey: Even with the bird’s street address in hand, I missed yet another one yesterday afternoon at Cape May.

And you know what? It doesn’t bother me in the least.


Now that we’re almost three full hours away from New Jersey’s southernmost wedge of sandy land, we don’t get to Cape May very often. Back when we lived in that small central Jersey town with the large university, it seemed like nothing to drive two hours each way for a day with the sea and the sun and the birds, but for some reason the additional 50 minutes or so of parkway dampens my enthusiasm. And now that we live with a big dog, and on one academic salary to boot, staying over for a night or two or three has become a near-impossibility.

And so I looked forward that much more to getting to spend two days down that way this weekend, thanks to Scott & Nix and the Cape May Autumn Weekend. Wednesday night I packed my satchel, moved the slides for my lecture onto one of those magical memory sticks, and slept a few fitful hours before hitting the road (the already busy road: what are non-birders even doing up at such an hour?).

I pulled into the parking lot at Higbee Beach at the magical, still dim hour of 7:05, and already there was something in the air. Lots of somethings, in fact.


The flight was steady and thoroughly October-like, dominated by myrtle warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets — so many of the latter flashing by, at all heights, apparently entirely unconcerned by my presence, that I began to worry my corpse might be found in the first field, covered with tiny puncture wounds. Pine siskins, purple finches, blue-headed vireos, chipping sparrows: It felt great to stand with the wind at the back, watching hundreds and thousands of birds dart overhead or pause in the brightening trees.


The odd merlin and a constant stream of sharp-shinned hawks were enjoying it, too. Watching them partake inspired me, and as things slowed down around 9:30, I set off in search of my own breakfast. On returning to the parking lot, I found this gang staring down at me.

Black vulture

When the black vultures are up, it’s time to head for the hawk watch. I stepped out of the car to find a bird even bigger than the vultures, and more surprising, low overhead.


This American white pelican made me wonder whether there was any reason to venture beyond the parking lot. There probably wasn’t. Palm warblers, Savannah sparrows, and white-throated sparrows thronged the edges of the lot, and if I’d been just a little bit taller, I might even have seen this snazzy drake Eurasian wigeon without stepping off pavement. It turned out to be the first of three or possibly four of that usually uncommon species I would run into — more like Vancouver than New Jersey.


After a few minutes up on the platform — just enough, I hope, to prove myself not entirely asocial — I retreated to the solitude of the beach, where I could sit and watch the sparrows and warblers and kinglets on the dune while royal terns and black and surf scoters flew up and down the shore.


At Cape May, you always want to be looking every direction at once, one eye on the sand, one on the water, one on the sky. That goes double (and that’s six eyes, for those keeping count) if you happen to be a potential prey item, I suppose.


There was a good variety of hawks and falcons keeping the littler birds on their toes. I was happy to see a few broad-winged hawks, a little on the late side for that species, but the highlight for me, as on most late October trips to Cape May, was the chance to see red-shouldered hawks. Long ago someone let me in on a little secret: if you take up residence on a certain bench along a certain trail in the state park, the red-shoulders sometimes pass by nice and low, presumably hunting the treeline rather than spiraling anxiously higher and higher as they tend to do at the hawk watch proper.


There weren’t many during the couple of hours I perched comfortably on my bench, maybe half a dozen, but they included one rosy-breasted adult — and the views were great, low and close.


The only bad thing about an October day in Cape May is that dusk comes so soon. I’d booked my hotel in Absecon so that I could spend the evening at Brigantine, and already it was time to head north.

By the time I was out on the dikes in the late afternoon, the wind — the same wind that had made Higbee so good nine hours earlier — had calmed somewhat, and I was able to be out of the car and scoping comfortably. The birdlife was decidedly autumnal, with the beginnings of a nice selection of ducks, scattered flocks of Atlantic brant, and with the exception of a single juvenile semipalmated sandpiper, only the “late” shorebirds still around. Those first small flocks of dunlin are a sure sign that the seasons are changing.


The seasons, and the weather, too. When I left the hotel the next morning at 6:00, those wonderful northwest winds were back, but the sky was clearer and the air drier than the day before: another cold front had passed, and even in the dark I was seeing passerines cross the parkway as I drove south.

If Friday morning had been lively at Higbee, Saturday the air was alive. Thousands of American robins and myrtle warblers filled the sky, with purple finches, pine siskins, rusty blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, and a dozen other species in their wake. Even more exciting, the night had seen a big push of sparrows. Where I’d been happy to see the odd handful of slate-colored juncos on my first morning, here suddenly were great windrows of them on the paths and roadsides.

I’d intended to walk around the fields slowly, the usual routine, but I ended up standing place for two and a half hours, taking no more steps than absolutely necessary to yield the trail to other birders. My sedentary approach was less strategy than inevitability: every time I considered advancing just a little bit, another rush of sparrows burst out of the goldenrod and grass, or a winter wren hopped along the woodland edge behind me, or a yellow-billed cuckoo or yellow-breasted sapsucker swooped in to perch at close range. Or a junco, finding no easier perch, landed for a breath-taking moment on the long lens of the birder who had paused to talk.

It was spectacular, one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve ever had birding in New Jersey, and the more exciting, as Kevin pointed out later in the day, for being most decidedly not a fallout: no wrecks, no storm-tossed waifs, no tiny creatures shivering for life in unwonted places and habitats. It was simply migration, abundant birds moving south in their abundance the way they have for a long, long time. Exhilarating and wonderful for the observer, no more hazardous than normal for the birds.

The pace had slowed by 10:00, and I was hungry. After breakfast I spent another hour watching Savannah sparrows in the dunes at the state park, then hied myself into town for my lecture. Understandably on so birdy an autumn day, the crowd was not large, but it was engaged and thoughtful — what more can one hope for?

George was good enough to take me to lunch, then we whiled away a birdy half hour at the state park before the book signing.

Rick signing books at Cape May

And then a low rumble was heard from the exhibition rooms. It was the voices of birders, the chatter taking on a new urgency. At the words “fork-tailed flycatcher,” the crowds evaporated and a parade took shape on the streets of old Cape May.

I followed. The bird was gone. But I’d had a great couple of days at what has rightly been called the center of the birding universe.


That First Yellow-rump

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Myrtle warbler

It’s October now, and they’re everywhere here in northern New Jersey, woods and thickets and messy backyards full of their homely little tock notes.

Yellow-rumped warblers are so abundant and so familiar that we can forget that they had to be “discovered” for European science. But it should be easy enough to find out who deserves credit for shooting and describing the first one.

Shouldn’t it?

The first western scientist to apply the name “yellow-rump” to a parulid was, unsurprisingly, Mark Catesby. Catesby’s description , however, of his Virginia specimens is remarkably scant:

This is a Creeper, and seems to be of the Tit-kind. The most distinguish’d Part of this Bird is its Rump, which is yellow. All the Rest of the Feathers are brown, having a faint Tincture of Green. It runs about the Bodies of Trees, and feeds on Insects, which it pecks from the Crevises of the Bark. The Hen differs little from the Cock in the Colour of its Feathers.

None too informative, is it? Fortunately, Catesby’s plate should clear things up.

Or so one might think.

Catesby, The yellow-rump

Recently, most ornithologists have been content to identify Catesby’s yellow-rump with our yellow-rump, the bird now known as Setophaga coronata; it’s as good a guess as any, though I often wonder whether we might not be looking at, and Catesby describing, one of those so dull Cape May warblers one runs into this time of year.

What we do know is that Linnaeus, who named so many organisms in reliance on Catesby’s Natural History, did not believe that Catesby had depicted coronata, which the Archiater described instead from a handsome and well-detailed plate by George Edwards (whose Motacilla corona aurea was, of course, the inspiration for the Linnaean name).

Edwards, too, another of Catesby’s closest readers, failed to recognize in the old “yellow-rump” the warbler he, Edwards, was describing; indeed, he says in 1760, 28 years after the first publication of the Catesbeian plate, that

these birds, I think, may safely be pronounced non-descripts,

that is, members of a species not yet formally described to science.

What do you think? Is Mark Catesby’s “yellow-rump” a yellow-rump?


Bird Bath, 24/7

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Great horned owl

The strigid equivalent of a hot tub under the stars, I suppose.


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