Archive for New Jersey

Aug
15

Curb Appeal

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Downy Woodpecker

A downy woodpecker spent most of the day yesterday throwing wood chips and sawdust out of its neat new roost hole in our backyard; apparently the results were satisfactory, as the bird is in there this morning, looking smugly out at the rest of the world.

And there’s a lot of world for it to look at. Over just a few minutes this morning, the new cavity was investigated by black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, white-breasted nuthatches, and a second downy woodpecker; the new homeowner drove them all away with threatening movements of the head, though I didn’t see any actual contact made with that sturdy little bill.

This should be fun to watch as the autumn proceeds.

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Aug
01

Named for a Neighbor

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Screenshot 2014-06-12 16.13.56

One of the truly great things about living in New Jersey is the depth and continuity of the birding tradition. From William Bartram through Wilson, Audubon, and Bonaparte, there is an unbroken line of intellectual descent from the earliest birders right down to, well, you and me.

birders birding Brookdale Park

Not all of our forebears are so renowned, of course. It’s humbling and exhilarating to walk in the footsteps of the giants. But we are also, every day, retracing the paths of birders hardly anyone alive has ever heard of — and it’s especially exciting when you discover that one of those forgotten nobodies was your neighbor, and was far from a nobody, and deserves a little remembering.

Clarence B. Riker is still well known, at least in name, to entomologists, but a casual poll of my birding colleagues here in northern New Jersey came up blank.

Riker, born in November 1863, met Frank Chapman when both were about 19. Chapman would later write in his Autobiography that

Riker was my age, but he had more initiative… and in the summer of 1884 procured leave from the shipping firm by which he was employed and went up the Amazon as far as Santarem. In 1887 he repeated the trip.

The results of those youthful expeditions were published in a series of articles in the Aukdescribing some 400 bird skins Riker had brought back to his home in Maplewood, New Jersey. Among the specimens from Riker‘s first visit to the Neotropics, collected 125 years ago today, was a bizarre furnariid, an adult male

of very striking appearance … entirely different in coloration from any Dendrocolaptine bird….

In 1886, Robert Ridgway described Riker’s bird as a new species, Picolaptes rikeri, thanking the collector:

The type specimen, the only one obtained, was kindly presented to the National Museum by Mr. C.B. Riker … after whom I take pleasure in naming it.

We know it today as the point-tailed palmcreeper. With the erection of the new genus Berlepschia by Ridgway in 1887, this became one of the relatively few birds to bear the names of two ornithologists — one of whom lived just a few miles south of us here in New Jersey.

A quarter of a century later, Ridgway was still working through Riker’s Santarem material. As he wrote in 1912, a nunbird our New Jersey colleague collected on June 30, 1887, had

hitherto been referred to M. morphoeus [the white-fronted nunbird] of eastern Brazil, but is decidedly smaller and differs further in the black instead of white malar apex.

Ridgway’s analysis of the Riker specimen and five others led him to describe a new species of nunbird, Monasa rikeri, named, obviously, for the collector of the type.

Unlike the palmcreeper, Riker’s nunbird has not stood the test of taxonomic time, lumped once again with just the “normal” white-fronted nunbird of the nominate race. 

Keuleman, white-fronted nunbird

Whether that bothered Riker at all I don’t know. My impression, fair or not, is that his ornithological field work ended once he discovered butterflies — a common and lamentable fate still today — but he did continue to provide the AOU his expertise in a different field, as Investment Trustee, a task he performed from the comfortable surroundings of his Kip-Riker Mansion in South Orange.

As we bird the fields and marshes and woodlands of northern New Jersey, we can’t realistically hope to have birds named after us. But we can find some inspiration in remembering our intellectual ancestors and the birds they watched — and the birds they discovered — more than a century ago, here and in the still wild wilds of South America.

 

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Jul
19

Shorebirds

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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?

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Jul
07

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?

 

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Jun
12

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

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