Archive for Recent Sightings
I’ve been watching Red-bellied Woodpeckers since way back in Centurus days, and we weren’t at all surprised to see this one using the rock-hard ice crust of our backyard as an anvil for opening tough oilseeds this morning.
Whenever I see this species on the ground, I’m reminded of a red-belly I saw years ago in eastern Nebraska, gleaning something or other from among the ballast stones on a railroad track. As I watched, the bird actually grasped one of the pieces of pink quartzite in its bill and moved it to the side; I didn’t measure the stone, or keep it, and I don’t know what the standard size of ballast is, but I have it in memory as more than two inches across.
That impressed me. These birds can do anything.
One of the few things I can still enjoy about winter in the snow zone is the chance to spend some time with one of my (fifty or sixty or so) favorite emberizids, the American Tree Sparrow.
There’s a game I like to play when I’m watching this or any other “familiar” bird: How, I ask myself, can this bird be identified without recourse to any of the old Petersonian “field marks”?
After all, once you’ve seen your first hundred or thousand or (probably, though I don’t have an exact count) ten thousand tree sparrows, you don’t really look at the rusty crown or the smudgy breast spot or the swollen, yellow-based mandible.
Those are all “micro” marks, often hard to pick out without the application of glass. And yet we know what we’re looking at even before we’ve switched off the car. So what are we actually seeing — and can we make our impressions explicit, in real live honest-to-goodness words?
Well, there’s the rather long, black tail with conspicuous white edging, for one thing. There’s the coarse back pattern of rufous and black tracks, so unlike the neater, finer markings of this species’ (current) congeners. And there’s that big reddish secondary panel that contrasts so strikingly with the most beautifully black and white tertials worn by any American sparrow.
But most of the time it’s that single bright white wing bar that catches my eye.
And every time it does, I smile. What I learned as a young birder was that
Two conspicuous white wing-bars are also characteristic,
in the words of what still ranks as one of the very best field guides ever.
Indeed, American Tree Sparrows do have very large, very conspicuous white tips to both the greater and the median secondary coverts.
But just because a bird “has” two wing bars doesn’t mean it “has” two wing bars. More often, I think, than most sparrows, birds of this species tend — at least in the winter — to droop their scapulars and fluff their breast feathers, often covering the median coverts, and thus the “upper” wing bar, entirely, creating the effect of a single bold white slash across a rich chestnut field.
Even when the second, upper wing bar is visible, it tends to appear incomplete; in two hours of sparrowing the other day, I had sustained looks at a bird revealing both wing bars in their full glory exactly once.
None of this is exactly earthshaking, I suppose, and I’ll admit that I still take every opportunity I can to enjoy the classic, oft-repeated identification characters of this charming species. But my birding is invariably enriched when I stop to ask not “What is it?” but rather “How do we know?”
Maybe yours would be, too.
How do you know it’s February?
Finally, after brightening the landscape for nearly six months now, those festive red sumac fruits are drawing birds. With softer, more palatable food sources pretty much gone, American Robins, Northern Flickers, and other frugivores are turning to these rock-hard, bristly little citrus-bitter seeds.
Yes, it’s a sign of desperation. But it’s a sign of spring, too. Bring on the sumac banquets!
As a young birder, just after the days of Hesperornis, I was puzzled by the claim in all the books that the Song Sparrow was abundant, familiar, ubiquitous. Though the species has greatly increased in eastern Nebraska over the decades since, back then it was an uncommonish bird, and it took me a couple of seasons before I felt that I had something like a handle on it.
Fast forward to our years in southeast Arizona. There, we quickly found, the local Song Sparrows looked nothing like what I had learned as a boy and grown so familiar with in Massachusetts and New Jersey and Illinois. Indeed, these birds of damp desert thickets and ponds are so different from what the historical eastern bias of American birding has styled “the typical” that many first-time visitors to the Southwest refuse at first to believe that they are Song Sparrows at all.
When Spencer Baird saw the first specimens of this new form in 1854, he found it distinctive enough to merit description as a new species. Compared with the “normal” Song Sparrow,
the bill is considerably smaller and the tail longer. The plumage above is more ashy, the streaks on the back not so distinct, the spots are more crowded about the breast, but fewer on the sides; their color more uniformly chestnut brown.
All that said, though,
this species bears a very close resemblance to Z. melodia,
and so Baird gave it the name Zonotrichia fallax, the “deceptive sparrow.”
Four years later, in the great report of the Pacific Railroad Explorations, Baird wondered whether he might not have been the one deceived:
Although this species is very similar to the M. melodia, yet, when specimesn are compared with an extensive series, of the last mentioned species, an impression of difference will at once be conveyed…. I do not, however, feel sure that this species will stand as perfectly satisfactory… At any rate, I consider it as less strongly established than any of the others before me.
By 1874, Baird and the distinguished co-authors of the History of North American Birds had rethought the whole thing. Their deliberations largely anticipate the notion of the Rassenkreis, a concept that would be explicitly applied to the Song Sparrows by Patten and Pruett 135 years later. Writes Baird in 1874,
Spread over the whole of North America, and familiar to every one, we find each region to possess a special from [of Song Sparrow] (to which a specific name has been given, and yet these passing into each other by such insensible gradations as to render it quite impossible to define them as species. Between M. melodia of the Atlantic States and M. insignis of Kodiak the difference seems wide; but the connecting links in the intermediate regions bridge this over so completely that, with a series of hundreds of specimens before us, we abandon the attempt at specific separation, and unite into one no less than eight species previously recognized.
Baird’s old fallax was one of those eight, listed in the History as Melospiza melodia var. fallax.
Unfortunately, however, Baird extended his name fallax to comprise two very different birds, the pale, reddish, sparsely marked Song Sparrows of the southwestern deserts and the darker, more richly colored birds of the Great Basin and adjoining Rocky Mountains. Henry Henshaw corrected that error in the very first volume of the Auk, restricting the name fallax to
the older though least known form … inhabiting our southern border — Arizona and New Mexico.
The more northerly birds received their own, new name, montana.
The AOU Check-list, back in those happy days when it provided a full accounting of each species’ recognized subspecies, called fallax in its strict sense the Desert Song Sparrow, from 1886 up to the Fourth Edition of 1931, when the fallacious one pulled another of its tricks.
Following Oberholser in rejecting Henshaw’s identification of Baird’s type specimen, the committee responsible for this, the weakest edition of the Check-list voided the name montana and re-allocated fallax to the northerly populations covered by Baird’s early description, using Grinnell’s name saltonis for the southern birds. As a result, fallax was called in English the “Mountain” Song Sparrow, and the English name “Desert” was shifted to saltonis, generating a quarter century’s worth of confusion that must have had our trickster sparrow laughing its pale rusty head off.
Not even the sneakiest sparrow was a match for Allan Phillips, though. Phillips, writing midway between the publication of the Fourth and the Fifth editions of the Check-list, re-asserted the validity and the identity of Henshaw’s montana, once again calling it in English the Mountain Song Sparrow, and effectively splitting the pale southern birds into three races – fallax (northern Arizona), saltonis (southwestern Arizona and California), and his new bendirei (central and southern Arizona and Sonora).
More recent authorities tend to synonymize all three of those Phillipsian races under fallax in Henshaw’s sense, leaving us with just one Desert Song Sparrow, a tricky little bird that no doubt still relishes the almost endless confusion it has caused over the years.
Ho hum, thinks the birder from eastern North America: just another Northern Cardinal.
But as our Linnaean Society field trip to Phoenix this past week reminded us, a close look at that bird in the southwestern US and northern Mexico reveals a bird a little less contemptibly familiar than we might expect.
The red cardinals of Arizona are startling and striking, big and long-tailed and long-crested. The species’ best-known field mark, the black mask surrounding the bill, is noticeably reduced compared to the same patch in eastern birds, often not quite meeting across the forehead, making that brilliant red helmet stand even taller.
It’s no wonder that Robert Ridgway found these birds “easily distinguishable.” In 1885, he described a series of specimens from Arizona as belonging to a new subspecies, which he named Cardinalis cardinalis superbus.
In the 70 years after Ridgway’s description of the bird, this distinctive race — one of sixteen most authorities still recognize across the Northern Cardinal’s extensive range in North and Middle America — went by the sensible and straightforward English name of the Arizona Cardinal, a name lost, like so many others, when the 1957 edition of the AOU Check-list created standardized vernacular names for North America’s birds at the species level.
More and more, I think, American birders are returning to the English subspecies names propounded in earlier editions of the Check-list. In this case, though, there’s an alternative better even than “Arizona Cardinal.”
Though Ridgway provided no etymology when he named his new cardinal, it seems likely that he understood superbus to mean simply “superb, outstanding, excellent.” But in real Latin, as opposed to scientifiquese, the word is much richer. From the vaunting ambition of Turnus in the Aeneid to the traditional mortal sins of the medieval church, “superbus” and “superbia” referred to one’s own hubristic estimation of oneself as superb or outstanding or excellent.
Doesn’t this bird look superbus? We could do worse than to call these Arizona birds Prideful Cardinals, glowing as they do in the certainty of their own superbness.