Archive for New Jersey
As if there were still any doubt, it’s become apparent that this is a “good fall” in New York and New Jersey for the infinitely appealing Snowy Owl. This past weekend saw single-party single-day tallies of half a dozen or more at the usual coastal sites, from Long Island to Stone Harbor, and I’m eager to hear what the cumulative total of individuals is up to — and to see how many more drift down our way.
Whenever I hear reports of this species from our part of the world, I recall the slightly spoilsport words of John Bull in his edition of the Birds of the New York Area.
Present-day observers who see from one to six in a day’s trip on Long Island and call it a “big” flight should bear in mind that their counts are insignificant when compared with the … flights
of 1890-9 1 and 1926-27.
During the former flight at least 20 were shot at Montauk alone in a two-week period prior to December 6, and over 70 were shot on eastern Long Island between November 24 and December 12.
The 1926 flight was even more impressive:
40 were killed on Fisher’s Island alone in November and December, and a single taxidermist received 36 additional birds from eastern Long Island. At Long Beach, eight were shot on the morning of December 5, and at least 75 more were shot elsewhere in the New York City region.
Shot, of course, because they were big and white and weird and tame — no better reason than that.
New York’s total for that flight was 495 birds seen or collected; interestingly, New Jersey had only 15, a number we’re certain to exceed this time around. Maine had nearly 600 individuals, 82 of which are seen in this spectacularly macabre photograph of the Bangor shop of Fred C.N. Parke:
In general, I think this winter’s snowies will find a friendlier reception. Hope so, at least.
You’d have to be pretty oblivious not to know about this fall’s “invasion” of Snowy Owls into New York and New Jersey. Its timing thus far has been almost identical to that of the legendary (but very real) incursion of 1926 — we’ll just have to wait to see whether the numbers rise to those almost incredible levels.
The comparison between this year and that will soon be commonplace, I’m sure, and I hope that it serves to remind us of something most of us have forgot.
That same December of 1926 — December 19, to be exact — also brought a Northern Hawk Owl to central New Jersey. (My photograph is from coastal British Columbia, and represents a full fifty percent of the hawk owls I’ve seen in my life.)
Maybe this is the year for another.
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.
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.
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).
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.
This tall, dark, and handsome Snowy Owl, loafing in the dunes of Sandy Hook this morning, is one of about four reported in the state over the past couple of days, a total that is already better than average for a New Jersey winter. Maybe we’ll get the snowy winter we’re due after several years when the species’ incursions have stopped just north or just west of us.
Snowy Owls are famous for their tolerance of humans — and infamous for their brashness on the breeding grounds. In 1863, a hundred fifty years ago this year, this is what Thomas Wright Blakiston had to say about the species in its Canadian nesting range:
its audacity is such, that it was related to me by a chief factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service, that he knew of an instance of one carrying off a wounded bird from the haversack of a hunter; its wing, having been sticking out and fluttering, attracted the Owl’s attention.
The Snowy Owl is the heaviest, most powerful, and — if you’re a hunter with a wing flapping out of your haversack — scariest owl in North America. It’s not the largest in the world though: that distinction belongs to another member of the genus Bubo.
Named, coincidentally, for Blakiston. What goes around, comes around.
Weird ducks, weird names.
Nobody knows where the English word “scoter” comes from, whether it shares an origin with verbs like “shoot” and “scoot” or with the equally obscure waterfowl name “scout.” Lockwood‘s rather fanciful explanation that the word is a scribal or printing error for “sooter,” in allusion to the birds’ swarthy plumage, falls hard against the fact that there is no attestation for any such English word.
I can live with that uncertainty. As I watched this handsome bird at Sandy Hook this morning, though, I started to wonder something else: What’s so surfish about the Surf Scoter?
Linnaeus based his Anas perspicillata on the handsomely spectacled bird Edwards called, descriptively enough, “The Great Black Duck from Hudson’s-Bay.” Edwards had his specimen from James Isham, agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada; this big, dusky duck was one of no fewer than eight undescribed birds Isham brought back to England.
Edwards is at pains to note that though this species had never been formally described, it was apparently not entirely unknown:
My Friend, Mr. Henry Baker, F.R.S. hat a Bill of this Bird in his Collection…. I think I have discovered a Draught of it, in a small Set of Dutch Prints of Birds, (published at Amsterdam by Nicola Visscher, Anno 1659, where it is called Turma Anser)….
“Squadron goose” is a good name indeed for this or any of the scoters, which tend to move in large, well-regulated lines; but this isn’t getting us anywhere near the modern English name. Neither does Buffon’s “macreuse à large bec,” the “big-billed coot-duck.” (I hope someone can tell me why it is also called “marchand.”)
Calling this duck “black,” or even “great black,” was certain to lead to confusion, of course; consider this page from Pennant‘s Arctic Zoology, where our Surf Scoter is called the “Black Duck” and our Black Scoter is called the “Scoter Duck.”
As far as I know, the first time the name Surf Duck appeared in print for this species was in 1814, in the eighth, posthumous volume of Alexander Wilson‘s American Ornithology.
George Ord, the author’s literary executor, assures us that “the historical part of the present volume was fully completed and printed off … under the superintendence of the author,” and so we can assume that the header for the species account was Wilson’s own:
Wilson’s text does not give the impression that he coined the name, as it often does when it introduces a neologism; he provides no explanation beyond the incidental remark that
this Duck is peculiar to America, and altogether confied to the shores and bays of the sea, particularly where the waves roll over the sandy beach…. they dive almost constantly, both in the sandy bays and amidst the tumbling surf.
In his Manual, Thomas Nuttall simply adopted Wilson’s English names, right down to that slightly fussy comma:
It would be another Englishman who, just a year after the publication of Nuttall’s work, gave us the form “Surf Scoter” — and the explanation of the name. Prideaux John Selby, a would-be rival of Audubon’s and collaborator of William Jardine, accounts this bird among the “stragglers, or rare visitants” to Great Britain, and includes its portrait, stiff and floating ever so slightly above the water, in his Illustrations of British Ornithology.
If you look close, you’ll see that the plate is labeled “Spectacle Scoter,” a translation of the latinizing epithet perspicillata. But Selby’s text is proudly headed “Surf Scoter,” and he goes on to explain why:
It is always seen upon the water, and very frequently amidst the heaviest surf, in which it appears to delight, and to sport quite at ease; and on which account it has obtained in America the trivial name of the Surf Duck.
Selby buries this remark in the middle of material from the American Ornithology, but there’s nothing in Wilson’s text to back up the Englishman’s assertion. Instead, he was more likely relying on a colorful passage in George Shaw’s General Zoology, where it is said of the “Great-beaked Scoters” — Buffon’s name, Englished — that
they are shy birds, and delight in diving about amongst the impetuous surf.
In the same year that Selby published his Illustrations, John James Audubon painted a duck that he called the “Butter-boat-billed Coot.” When the engraving appeared a few years later, it was labeled with the less extravagantly vernacular Wilsonian names.
Audubon’s text, published separately from the engravings, reduces the options to one, “Surf Duck,” following the usage of the Fauna boreali-americana. Once sanctioned by such high authorities, that name quickly became the standard, and it was “Surf Duck” in Eyton’s Monograph and in Baird’s Birds; only Audubon’s collaborator William MacGillivray seems to have adopted Selby’s name Surf Scoter and his justification for it:
it dives in shallow water, often even amidst the breakers, whence its name….
As late as 1894, Elliott Coues was still calling this bird the “Surf Duck”; confusingly (and uncharacteristically), Coues also used that term as a synonym for the entire genus Oedemia, thus making his Surf Duck a species of — surf duck.
Not until the magisterial Fifth Edition of the Key (published after Coues’s death) was Surf Scoter added to the list of English names, where it was given first place.
I suspect that it was the confusing polysemy of the name “surf duck,” applied to both a genus and a species within that genus, that eventually cemented the use of Surf Scoter for our bird.
While Ridgway was still writing “Surf Duck” in 1881, the American Ornithologists’ Union’s checklist committee — of which both he and Coues were members — called the bird Surf Scoter from the very beginning. We still do today — most of us, anyhow.
True “folk” names for the birds of North America have become very rare, but if they persist anywhere, it is among duck hunters.
“Skunk head” seems to be the most durable (and the most self-explanatory) of the homegrown alternatives, but there have been many others over the years. Turnbull, writing almost a century and a half ago, still knew these:
horse-head coot, skunk-bill, bald-pate, skunk-top, surfer, google-nose, patch-head, patch-polled coot, white-scop, muscle-bill, pictured-bill, snuff-taker, speckled-bill coot, spectacle coot, Morocco-jaw, white-head, bay-coot, blossom-bill, blossom-head, hollow-billed coot, and pishaug.
I like all those names, a lot. (Especially “snuff-taker, the drake’s variegated beak reminding duckers of a careless snuff-taker’s nose”!). But no matter how contrived the name, I’m happy to live with Surf Scoter, especially as long as I can keep living with Surf Scoters.