Archive for Recent Sightings
I’ve spent most of the past two days in New Jersey’s other wilderness, the forested mountains of Sussex County.
I get to visit this extreme northwestern corner of the state again in June, first with a group from the Brooklyn Bird Club and then just a couple of days later with Daniel.
June in Sussex means one thing and one thing only: breeding warblers. And so I set out to see if I could pin any of the more “desirable” species down in preparation for next month.
Most people think of warblering in New Jersey as something you do in May at Garret Mountain and in September at Cape May and Palmyra, when — if the weather and the season are right — migrants pour through. But the great open secret is that this state has a list of something like 27 breeding parulids, most of which can be found reliably every year in places like High Point, Stokes State Forest, and the Pequannock Watershed.
If I count right, I was able to find 21 of the area’s breeding species, plus a very lovely Brewster’s Warbler (it’s likely, of course, that every single one of the many phenotypic Blue-winged Warblers I saw were also of “impure” blood). That is not to say that we’ll succeed in relocating all of them on our June visits, but at least we’ll know where to look.
It always saddens me to actually go looking for Cerulean Warblers in Sussex County: I can remember a time, not that long ago, when this lovely little bird was simply part of a nice day under the tall trees, but now, suffering from habitat destruction on its narrow wintering grounds to our south, the species is often the target for birders in the New Jersey skylands and southward along the Delaware River. I didn’t check every location I’ve had birds in the past, but three of the more reliable produced males, persistently singing and nicely visible up in the greening canopy. I stopped in to pay my respects to one of them yesterday at high noon, and he was still at it, buzzing away in just the same tree where I’d left him the day before. Fingers crossed.
The Louisiana Waterthrush is another specialty of the area, though it’s widespread elsewhere in the state, too. The problem with this big, handsome brown warbler isn’t so much scarcity (though it’s nowhere truly abundant) as detectability.
Early arrivers and early nesters, these streamside breeders tend to sing most in the morning, and go silent entirely in early summer, when their procreative duties are done. They’re fairly shy even when they’re singing, and tend to take low, inconspicuous perches in the dense foliage along noisy creeks, making them hard to see in the best of circumstances. I was happy to get great looks at two singing males on Friday — but we’ll see whether they are as obliging a few weeks from now.
Northern Waterthrushes, much more abundant, more familiar, and more easily seen, are also much scarcer in Sussex County, and I was able to find only one, an invisible singing male at a traditional and very beautiful site in High Point State Park.
Kuser Bog is about as wild as it gets anywhere, and some loud crashing made me hasten my steps on the way out (I saw not a single bear either day). A Hermit Thrush, a singing Black-throated Blue Warbler, and a couple of Blackburnian Warblers were probably on breeding territories, but I couldn’t find any Nashville or Canada Warblers, or, ominously, a Ruffed Grouse, all species I’d been hoping to find among the hemlocks, spruces, and rhododendrons.
Most of the other, more common parulids fell into place fairly easily, at least whenever a pause in the din from the innumerable Ovenbirds and American Redstarts let me hear them. Chestnut-sided Warblers were more common than I remembered them, rolling out their cheerful songs on parking lot edges and in picnic areas. By far the most startling sight of my entire expedition was the ferocious battle between two males, locked in struggle on a branch; the bird on top managed to push the underdog into space, but held on to him by the bill, so that the second bird dangled for more than a second, squeaking and tiny feet flailing. Next time I need muscle, I’m hiring half a dozen chestnut-sides!
If some of the warblers require a little searching, another of Sussex County’s specialty breeders, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, is hard to miss on an early May morning. Still a major rarity just 15 years ago, sapsuckers seem to be fairly common now in High Point and Stokes, where their explosive tapping can drown out everything else (everything, that is, but the Ovenbirds and American Redstarts). They’re especially fond of the campgrounds, which can make early morning visits to the nest trees a bit ticklish, but I did find one male hammering on the edge of a big beaver pond in Stokes State Forest, classic habitat for this northern woodpecker.
Like Chestnut-sided Warblers, many of the area’s special birds prefer clearings and hedges to deep forest. Blue-winged and Prairie Warblers join Field Sparrows along the quiet back roads, and Gray Catbirds yowl from the thickets.
At one of these locations I heard the unmistakable nails-on-chalkboard squeals of a Broad-winged Hawk, and scanned the trees to find a pair copulating on a branch, the second year in a row I’ve unintentionally intruded on the privacy of a pair of that species. The male took off, but the female lingered in the tree for a while.
It looks like a great place for a nest, tall trees bordering wet thickets and fields, and it would be great if the pair would stay through June. Wouldn’t it?
This time of year, the birds stay active most of the day. That may be different next month, when the heat and humidity may have set in. If that’s the case, we’ll have good birding for a few hours, then switch to watching other winged things, some of which were already assembling in puddle parties on the dirt roads.
Not warblers, but pretty enough — and one more reason to love the Jersey highlands.
Have you ever stopped to think how very few of the birds of western Europe and North America are named for their songs? While the English monikers of many tropical species chatter and rattle and bubble and trill, “our” more familiar birds of the northern hemisphere tend to bear names based on their visual, not aural characteristics.
It’s no real mystery why this should be. Most European and North American birds were discovered and described long before we had the technology to record or assess sound — and most of them are easily distinguished in any case by even the least careful eye.
Not so in much of Africa, southern Asia, and, especially, the American tropics, where calls and songs can be the only way to distinguish — sometimes even to detect — the hordes of fast-moving forest birds.
When Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot first described the Eastern Warbling Vireo in 1807, he didn’t even mention the bird’s song, limiting his account entirely to the not overly distinguished appearance of the skins in his collection:
This species has a brown bill and feet; the head, back of the neck and body are gray: this hue is slightly tinged greenish on the back; the long feathers of the wing and tail are brown, with the outer edges very slightly paler; the underparts are entirely dirty white; the flanks and the underwing coverts are like the back; the wings and the tail are grayish white below.
Apparently unable to decide which of the bird’s bland colors predominated, Vieillot assigned his new species the French name “moucherolle gris,” the gray flycatcher, and the scientific binomial Muscicapa gilva, the yellowish flycatcher.
Vieillot was far more than just a “closet naturalist,” but obviously his field experience with this species was restricted. Alexander Wilson, on the other hand, knew the bird well, especially its “extremely pleasing” song:
its voice is soft, tender, and soothing, and its notes flow in an easy, continued strain…. In these there is nothing harsh, sudden, or emphatical; they glide along in a kind of meandering strain, that is peculiarly its own.
Unaware that Vieillot had already described it, Wilson gave “this sweet little warbler” new names, calling it Muscicapa melodia and, in English, the Warbling Flycatcher. Happily, that new name caught on. Bonaparte adopted it in his Synopsis, and Nuttall gave it its modern form of Warbling Vireo in the Manual:
This sweetest and most constant warbler of the forest … is plain and unadorned; but the sweet melody of his voice, surpassing, as far as nature usually surpasses art, the tenderest airs of the flute, poured out often from the rising dawn of day to the approach of evening, and vigorous even during the sultry heat of noon … gives additional interest to this little vocalist.
No name could have been imposed upon this species with more propriety than that of the Warbling Flycatcher. The male sings from morning to night, so sweetly, so tenderly, with so much mellowness and softness of tone, and yet with notes so low, that one might think he sings only for his beloved, without the least desire to attract the attention of rivals.
It’s too bad that Vieillot’s bland gilvus — “dull yellowish” – enjoys the privilege of priority, but at least in English we get to call the bird a name it truly deserves. As Coues puts it,
Its voice is not strong, and many birds excel it in brilliancy of execution; but not one of them all can rival the tenderness and softness of the liquid strains of this modest vocalist.
If this year’s Biggest Week in American Birding had a feathered mascot, it would have to be the Eastern Warbling Vireo. Maybe not the prettiest of the migrants swarming northwest Ohio, maybe not the most sought-after, maybe not even the commonest, but certainly the one that meant the most to the most birders out on the boardwalks and trails and bus trips.
Let me explain: Again and again, I was privileged to be present when this drab little bird emerged from the vireo-colored foliage to be added to a ‘life list’. And again and again I witnessed how the same birders who had just seen their first saw their second, and their third, and their fourth — and identified them on their own. The sense of accomplishment that filled those birders was tremendous, exceeded, I think, only by the pleasure experienced by those who had, in small ways, helped them get there.
Seeing fancy warblers and roosting owls and incubating shorebirds may be the stuff of which memories are made, but learning a bird well enough to recognize it again is a real achievement — one that can be repeated over and over.
I’m guessing that ninety-nine out of a hundred readers of this ‘blog’ identified this Least Sandpiper at the merest of a glance. And I’m equally sure that not one out of that hundred (yes, someday we just might have fully one hundred people reading this blog) could give this familiar and abundant species’ scientific name without hesitating.
Me, I don’t just hesitate. I have to look it up. Every single time. For thirty-five years now.
It’s not that the name is difficult or vague or nonsensical. Calidris minutilla makes as much sense to us today as it did to Vieillot when he named the species (including it in the catch-all genus Tringa) in 1819.
The name of this bird was given it on account of its small size … it shows some affinity to the Tringa minuta of Leisler, which is found in Europe; I believe, however, that it is a separate species.
Minuta is the Little Stint, and in naming his new species, Vieillot simply gave it an even more diminutive diminutive.
So far so good. But the problem is that there are so many of these small sandpipers — and so few good names to go around.
Brisson started it all in 1763, when he described the Semipalmated Sandpiper from a specimen sent from Hispaniola by André Chervain. When Linnaeus gave the French ornithologist’s “petite alouette-de-mer” its Latin binomial, he, sensibly enough, called it Tringa pusilla, simply adopting and translating Brisson’s adjective “petite.”
By the time Middendorf came along in 1851 with the newly discovered Long-toed Stint, all the good names for the “little” sandpipers were used up.
This little bird of our is so similar to Tringa minuta that I have noticed the differences only now, after a closer examination. In its structure, size, and coloration, it cannot be distinguished at all from Tringa minuta in its summer plumage (cf. Naumann), except for its strikingly long toes and the dark-colored shafts of the flight feathers…. I would have classified this bird as a distinctive variant of Tringa minuta if the typical form of that species did not also occur in the Stanowoj Mountains without the least hint of intergradation with [the new bird].
But what to call it? Middendorf settled on subminuta, a name indicating both the bird’s apparent similarity to the sympatric Little Stint and its tiny size, “less than small.”
What we have today is a bunch of rather similar little sandpipers with a bunch of incredibly similar names:
Calidris pusilla (“small”), Semipalmated Sandpiper
Calidris minuta (“small”), Little Stint
Calidris subminuta (“even smaller”), Long-toed Stint
Calidris minutilla (“really small”), Least Sandpiper
No, of course not. And neither would this lovely bird.
It’s the first of May in northern New Jersey, and like clockwork, down from the trees comes the jangly, clangly song of the Orchard Oriole, like a slow House Finch singing in a coffee can.
I love the name “Orchard Oriole,” recalling as it does those long-ago days of America’s bucolic past, when every town ate apples from its own backyard. I’ve always bristled slightly at this species’ odd scientific name, though: What’s so spurious about Icterus spurius?
The bird owes that not particularly flattering moniker to Linnaeus, who listed it for the first time in the thirteenth edition of the Systema naturae, published in 1767. The description is economical to the point of scantiness: spurius is a “black oriole, tawny beneath, with a white panel in the wings.” If we want more (and we always do), we have to go back to Linnaeus’s own sources, Catesby and Brisson.
Catesby calls this species “the basterd Baltimore bird,” Icterus minor. The “handsomly cloathed” birds perched so neatly on the catalpa fruits are labeled male — above — and female — below; nowadays we know that both of the birds Catesby painted were likely males, the upper individual a first-cycle immature and the one beneath a full adult.
By using the English (and the French) word “bastard,” Catesby was not suggesting –as some have read it — that this oriole was somehow “illegitimate” or “counterfeit” or even a “hybrid”; the term is employed here in what was then the perfectly usual scientific sense of “similar,” “resembling, but not identical with, the species which legitimately bear[s] the name” (OED s.v. bastard).
Brisson, twenty-odd years later, adopts Catesby’s name for the “Baltimore bastard.”
Like Catesby, Brisson uses the word “bâtard” without pejorative connotation; but he does question his English predecessor’s identifications. Brisson is perfectly willing to believe that the green bird is the male of the species, but
the other bird depicted by Catesby on the same plate and which he claims is the female would appear rather to be the female of the preceding species [the Baltimore Oriole].
I believe the “female” as described by Catesby to be suspect. That bird far excels the male in its exquisite colors, a distinction enjoyed by no bird of the second sex, except for the females of hawks. And so in my view his descriptions of the sexes should be reversed.
Getting closer — but not quite there yet.
If any of the great naturalists of the late eighteenth century could have been expected to solve the puzzle of oriole plumages, it should have been Buffon, who had literally at his fingertips the finest collection of birds in the world.
But the great Frenchman was even more confused than his colleagues.
No doubt this bird was named the Bastard Baltimore because the color of its plumage are less vivid than those of the proper Baltimore, and in view of that fact it has been considered a decadent species [abâtardie]: and indeed, when careful comparison has shown that the two birds resemble each other in virtually every way (the Bastard does have slightly shorter wings), except for their colors, and that, to put it simply, that they differ only in the hue of those colors, which are distributed in almost absolutely the same way, then one can hardly avoid the conclusion that the Bastard Baltimore is no more than a variety of the true species, a variety that has degenerated under the influence of climate or some other cause.
Buffon’s notion of degeneracy, one he deployed so often in his discussions of North American animals, is neatly underlaid here by his theory of the relative state of development of the sexes:
In a word, the proper Baltimore is to the Bastard Baltimore, in so far as the plumage color is concerned, essentially what the Bastard Baltimore is to the female: for in the female the colors of the upperparts and tail are more muted and the underparts are of a yellowish white.
Martinet’s plate from the Planches enluminées, above, shows neatly the logical result of Buffon’s animadversions: the “proper” Baltimore is an adult male Baltimore Oriole in all his glory, while the Bastard Baltimore — which “should” be our Orchard Oriole — is obviously (to modern eyes) an old female or young male Baltimore Oriole.
It took none other than Alexander Wilson to finally sort it all out.
Wilson, ever the proud adoptive American, takes great umbrage at Buffon’s “philosophizing” and the “superstructure of theory” he built on his confusion of the female Baltimore with the male Orchard Oriole. The Father of American Ornithology notes that the two species are “evidently unlike” in size, in color, in pattern, in bill shape, in tail structure, in vocalizations, in nest construction, and in egg color and shape. If those differences aren’t sufficient, he asks, can we
assure ourselves, that the Great-horned Owl is not in fact a bastard Goose, or the Carrion-crow a mere variety of the Humming-bird?
It’s a rhetorical question. And a pretty snide one at that, even by Wilsonian standards of snottiness.
Having established that the great Buffon was a great buffoon, misled by “the distance of Europeans from the country they [the two American oriole species] inhabit,” Wilson goes on to offer the first description of the female Orchard Oriole and, critically, the first account of the plumage changes undergone by the male:
The young male of the first season corresponds nearly with the above description [of the female]. But in the succeeding spring, he makes his appearance with a large patch of black marking the front, lores and throat, as represented in fig. 2. In this stage, too, the black sometimes makes its appearance on the two middle feathers of the tail; and slight stains of reddish are seen commencing on the sides and belly.
Even Wilson, however, was confused by young males just attaining their “perfect” chestnut plumage, believing that patchy individuals like his Figure 3 were “at least birds of their third summer” rather than year-old males in molt.
Wilson was a famously careful field ornithologist, but his study of this species’ plumages had the advantage of particularly close observation. Orchard Orioles, he wrote,
are easily raised from the nest, and soon become agreeable domestics. One which I reared and kept through the winter, whistled with great clearness and vivacity at two months old…. I also kept a young female of the same nest, during the greatest part of winter, but could not observe, in that time, any change in its plumage.
Wilson commemorated his discovery in the new scientific name he gave this species, Oriolus mutatus, the “changeable” oriole, and protested in the most vigorous possible terms the Linnaean epithet spurius and its translation as “bastard.” That word,
when applied to a whole species of birds, perfectly distinct from any other, originally deriving their peculiarities of from, manners, colour, &c. from the common source of all created beings, and perpetuating them, by the usual laws of generation, as unmixed and independent as any other, is, to call it by no worse a name, a gross absurdity.
As an alternative to that offensive label, Wilson coined the English name we use today for these birds, observing that “they are so particularly fond of frequenting orchards, that scarcely one orchard in summer is without them.”
Spurious? Only some of the things we’ve said about them over the years. The birds themselves are, in Wilson’s so apt word, perfect.