Archive for New Jersey
Yes, I’m grateful that the bitter cup of whatever last week’s blizzard was named passed us more or less by. But that doesn’t make the dribs and drabs of powdery snow — an inch here, two inches there — we’ve been getting any more enjoyable.
Until this morning, that is, when the weather brought a sweet little field sparrow to the feeders.
A bright winter’s day, and the mind of the red-breasted mergansers turns to love.
Click here to watch a video from Shark River this morning. (Mute the sound.)
Alison had spent something like sixteen hours getting home from Canada the day before, but she was as chipper as could be expected when 4:00 came Sunday morning. The three of us piled into the car and headed south, meeting up with Frank pre-dawn for our first Barnegat Light Christmas Count.
Gellert couldn’t have been happier when he heard our assignment: to walk the beach south and the duneside back. Oh boy, Papa, a long stroll and saltwater, too!
I know few places where the sky and the sea are as consistently beautiful as New Jersey’s barrier islands. It was warm, the sand was well packed, and there were plenty of birds to be seen; the featherless bipeds had nearly as much fun as the dog. A nice flock of northern gannets fed its way south early in the morning, and that other black and white specialty of the outer beaches, snow buntings, flicked and flittered above our heads and in the wrack. I’d warned Alison not to expect any shorebirds — our “territory” was south of the rock jetties where they all hang out — but I had to eat my words when we found some 300 dunlin working the beach; with them were black-bellied plovers, sanderlings, ruddy turnstones, and a small handful of purple sandpipers, that last a bird I don’t often run into on the open sand.
The morning’s big surprise came an hour and a quarter into our walk. As we admired the long-tailed ducks’ speedy flight and laughed at their bumbling landings, I did a double-take when a tiny black and white football buzzed down the surf: a dovekie! Neither of us had ever seen one from shore, or even in sight of shore, in New Jersey, and I told Alison, more than half serious, that I wasn’t looking forward to reporting something so unusual at the midday tally.
But we announced it anyway. The responses were not what we’d expected: “We had one, too.” “Us, too.” “We saw two.” Some inscrutable alchemy of wind and wave had driven dovekies onshore, to everyone’s surprise and delight. And best of all, it wasn’t a “wreck” by any means; all the birds seen were happy and alive, whirring up and down the beaches and no doubt exchanging expressions of their own startlement: “Why, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human before!”
That little alcid was far and away the highlight of my CBC season this year. But it got better.
After the noontime conviviality, Alison and I did a bit of poaching, walking out Barnegat Inlet for a closer look at the common eiders and harlequin ducks riding what was by then a considerable swell. Just as we turned around, as nearly sated on sea ducks as one can be, another little black and white bird flew close overhead. This one was a swallow, a fine tree swallow, and in company with four more. Even as far north as Ocean County, that hardy frugivore is not entirely a surprise in late December, but the tree swallows’ presence was still exciting — and it created a combination I had never witnessed:
Tree swallows and a dovekie on the same day from the same beach. Not a bad way to end the birding year.
White on orange? Must be another of those Québecois geese.
And so it is:
By the way, for those interested in such things, that median throat stripe (I’m hearing it called a gular stripe recently) is very nearly complete, isn’t it?
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.
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.
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 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.
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?