Archive for Arizona
On this date in 1872, Charles Bendire took the first skin of the long-tailed desert bird that has been known ever since as the Bendire’s Thrasher.
Bendire sent the bird — a female, preserved by “mummification with carbolic acid” — to Elliott Coues, who, “not having then specially studied these birds,” submitted it to Robert Ridgway, who pronounced the specimen a Palmer’s Curve-billed Thrasher. Bendire
replied at once that the bird was an entirely distinct species, laying a very different egg [before shooting the adult, Bendire had collected at least six egg sets of the species in June 1872], and having somewhat dissimilar habits; and he finally settled the case by sending [Coues] a male skin, precisely like the original female specimen, together with several of both sexes of … Palmeri, all alike different from the new bird.
Coues doesn’t quite say “I told you so,” but poor Ridgway doesn’t come out looking any too good in this story. The Smithsonian ornithologist’s misidentification, Coues writes,
puzzled me … but presuming, of course, that he knew his own species better than I did, I felt obliged to rest on what he told me, though I was dissatisfied, and in … the Key, with the specimen before me, refrained from alluding to this (supposed) female of … Palmeri….
Ridgway having missed his chance, it was left to Coues to name the new species, a task he, no doubt gleefully, performed in the pages of The American Naturalist in June 1873, calling it Harporhynchus Bendirei, Bendire’s Mocking-Thrush.
The skins Bendire sent Coues are now in the US National Museum’s collection, where they lie on their backs with red labels identifying them as the co-types of their species.
Coues treated the two specimens slightly, and tellingly, differently. His formal description is based entirely on the male skin, with just a note at the end that the female is “not distinguishable from the male.” And in incorporating the skins into his private collection, he catalogued the male first, before the female, which had been shot more than three months earlier. It’s an old story and often told, ornithology’s consistent treatment of the male bird as the unmarked category, but rarely do we come across such a glaring example as this one.
Male? Female? Yes.
The Chiricahuas: a magical name for magical mountains, so wild and so welcoming that they would be a station on the birder’s pilgrimage route even without their one special bird.
The black-breasted, raspy-voiced Mexican Chickadee is widespread and common in the mountain ranges of west Mexico, but this largest of the small parids barely crosses the border into the US — where it is conveniently and reliably seen only in Arizona’s Chiricahua Mountains. Most visitors head to Rustler Park, where the birds nest in low cavities around the fire camp, but savvy birders and birders in a hurry cut an hour off the drive from Tucson by birding up West Turkey Creek.
This species was discovered far to the south of what would become Arizona, by a man Daniel Giraud Elliot called “a Prince in the realm of Zoological Science,” Philip Lutley Sclater, who died a hundred years ago today.
Sclater had no specimens of the similar North American chickadees at hand, but was confident on comparing his bird with the synopses of John Cassin that he had in fact discovered a new parid, which he named Parus meridionalis, the “southern titmouse.”
He was right: he had discovered a new species. But the name he selected for it proved to be “pre-occupied”; that is to say, Parus meridionalis had already been used in a published work to refer (if very obliquely) to a different bird, the Marsh Tit. The then very young Otto Kleinschmidt pointed this out in 1897, and suggested that
Parus meridionalis Sclater should probably be changed to P. sclateri.
A fine tribute to the bird’s discoverer — and certainly the only time that an “Arizona specialty” was named in an article treating the bird life of the Grand Duchy of Hessia.
And what I think is a tough one at that.
Which “Arizona specialty” was given its current scientific name in an article devoted to the avifauna of the Grand Duchy of Hessia?
You’d think that a Loggerhead Shrike would have a pretty easy life, especially in Arizona in the winter.
Not this one. I wouldn’t want to tangle with a Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and it wasn’t long before this shrike, at Catalina State Park on Monday, took the hint and exercised the better part of valor.
A wonderful long weekend–too short a long weekend–in southeast Arizona started with a surprisingly well-attended Sit at beautiful Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
Counting my co-leader Darlene and our sponsor Paul, we were a group of forty-nine, making this one of the three or four largest trips I’d ever led for Tucson Audubon.
The company was great, the birding perhaps a bit subdued, thanks to the chill and cloudy day. The clear avian highlight was, naturally enough, a sparrow, a wintering Red Fox Sparrow that eventually gave everyone ooh-aah views as it fed near the Demonstration Garden with White-crowned Sparrows and Lesser Goldfinches. Any fox sparrow (or should I write fox-sparrow?) is a “good” bird in southern Arizona, and this one started off a nice run of emberizids that lasted the entire weekend.
Friday I spoke at the Wings Over Willcox festival, but I had the morning and Saturday, too, to run around looking for puddles with sparrows in attendance. Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows were around in heartening numbers, joining the thousands and tens of thousands of Lark Buntings out in the Sulphur Springs Valley.
A single Cassin’s Sparrow was a good find at the Willcox golf course’s leaf dump; that species is rarely detected in Arizona in winter. Less surprising but just as lovely was the Grasshopper Sparrow that joined a flock of Brewer’s Sparrows on the roadside; it’s just visible in the photo second above, but did step out from the crowd a few times to give nice, unobstructed views.
It’s always a delight to be reminded how colorful this bird is with its ochre face and purple collar.
I got back to Tucson too late Saturday to do any birding around town, but Darlene picked me up on Sunday for an excursion to Sweetwater Wetlands.
As it usually does, this urban oasis came through big time with winter rarities: a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Summer Tanager, a surprising Solitary Sandpiper. There were a few Lawrence’s Goldfinches on the edges of the ponds, where they fed beneath buzzing and chattering Marsh Wrens while hundreds of ducks–including many hundred Northern Shovelers–courted and splashed.
Among all these birds one stood out: a Swamp Sparrow, annual at Sweetwater nowadays but still scarce anywhere in the state. This bird, with streaks still obvious on the upper breast, was probably in its first plumage cycle, putting paid to my old notion that Sweetwater had been hosting just one, long-returning individual.
Rain, welcome rain but cold, chased us out, and it was still spitting when I got up early Monday morning to go to Catalina State Park.
I wandered the washes and saguaro-studded slopes under a Chinese scroll of a sky, the mountains surging in and out of sight as the overcast rolled across their face.
The birding was good; I knew it would be when one of my first sightings was of a Lincoln’s Sparrow, one of two individuals I ran across on my walk. The emberizid flocks were composed mostly of White-crowned and Brewer’s Sparrows, as expected, but there were also four species of towhee mixed in: Abert’s and Canyon Towhees are common there all year, while Spotted and Green-tailed Towhees are only winterers in the park’s lowlands, both species in extremely variable numbers.
As I emerged into the drier desert on the ridges, Black-throated Sparrows became more and more conspicuous, their thin notes issuing from every clump of opuntia.
This abundant and familiar species is something of a nemesis bird for me: with what is fast approaching 40 years of birding under my belt, I’ve still never found this gorgeous sparrow anywhere in the east or midwest, where vagrants seem to show up–for other people–every winter.
Far less given to wandering is my favorite sparrow of all time.
I ran into only two groups of Rufous-winged Sparrows, one probably a pair, the other probably a family. After a moment’s fright, they all let me sit down with them and watch as they went about their quiet business on the ground beneath the catclaw, scratching for seeds and generally being irresistibly beautiful. No song yet from any of them, but it won’t be long. Wish I were there to hear it!
My weekend sparrow list:
And if you’re a traditionalist, Chestnut-collared Longspur, too.