Archive for WINGS Tours
Every spring is different, but this one was more different than most.
We’d pushed our March WINGS tour to Nebraska’s Platte River back a week to the end of the month, but the first few days of our time together felt more like winter than like early spring; only mid-week did the winds finally switch to the south and the temperatures climb above freezing, and the snow was replaced on our last morning’s hike by rich black sticky mud.
If from some perspectives the weather wasn’t ideal this time around, it could hardly have been better for the birder’s purposes: waterfowl, often enough already gone by the time our tour rolls around, were still lingering in impressive numbers (try 2,500 Richardson’s Cackling Geese in a single flock, or daily tallies of Redheads and Lesser Scaup in the hundreds), and junco diversity was still gratifyingly high, with Oregon, Pink-sided, and Cassiar Juncos to be found among the abundant Slate-coloreds.
Sandhill Crane numbers were good, too, of course, with estimated totals of 50,000 to 75,000 roosting on the Platte during our stay; we had brief views of a single Whooping Crane at one roost.
We were lucky to find Pine Siskin and Purple Finch still present, too, both irregular wintering species only rarely seen on this tour. Bald Eagle migration was still underway, and two Ferruginous Hawks—the first recorded on this tour—were a good find in the Sandhills, as were two Northern Shrikes.
But there were signs of springtime hope, too. The still snowy fishponds at Schramm State Park attracted an arriving Eastern Phoebe, and a Hermit Thrush (another tour first) and two Myrtle Warblers hunted the forest edge there.
Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal, typically two of the latest waterfowl species to arrive, trickled steadily in, and on our last evening we saw what must have been nearly the first Pied-billed Grebe and Double-crested Cormorant of the season.
And the weather made no difference at all to the springtime antics of the prairie grouse, with some 70 male Greater Prairie-Chickens on a single afternoon lek, followed by five dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse the next morning.
Already famous for its birds, our March tour is also gaining a reputation for great mammal watching. This year we added two large and especially appealing species to our cumulative list: a single Red Fox sniffed the edges of Carter Lake while we watched ducks on our first afternoon, and fifteen extremely photogenic Pronghorn made their gingerly way across the prairie-chicken lek a couple of days later.
Next year may be warmer, or colder, or snowier, or rainier, or drier, or even, hard as that would be to imagine, birdier; but we can only hope that it’s as much fun as this year’s edition of one of my favorite tours turned out to be.
A more detailed account of our days afield is here.
Join my new WINGS tour to Philadelphia, Palmyra, and Cape May, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the death of Alexander Wilson. It should be a fantastic weekend!
August 22-25, 2013
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Alexander Wilson, the “father of North American ornithology.” WINGS is celebrating our great forebear with a special long weekend based in Philadelphia; our destinations include sites first visited by Wilson and Audubon and still world-famous today for the abundance and variety of birds they attract.
Day 1: The tour begins at 6:00 pm in our Philadelphia airport hotel. Dinner in a nearby restaurant will be a chance to get to know each other and to discuss our plans for the next days. Night in Philadelphia.
Day 2: We’ll have an early breakfast in our hotel, then drive half an hour north to Palmyra Cove, the finest site for fall migrant passerines in the Delaware River Valley. Especially after the passage of an early-season cold front, songbirds can abound in the tangles lining the wide, level paths, and this is one of the best places in the region to look for Mourning and Wilson’s Warblers (the first named by, the second for Wilson) and Philadelphia Vireo. Scanning the river often turns up Laughing Gull, Caspian Tern, and Peregrine Falcon, and if the summer has been wet, Virginia Rail or Least Bittern can be found in the cattail-choked ponds.
After lunch, we’ll pay a special visit to Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, an institution that played a critical role in the development of American natural history and in the publication of Wilson’s American Ornithology. Afterwards we’ll briefly pay our respects at the seventeenth-century Gloria Dei Church, the oldest church in Pennsylvania and the resting place of Wilson, the naturalist George Ord, and members of the family of Charles Willson Peale. Night in Philadelphia.
Day 3: We’ll be up and out early today, but our short night will be worth it as we follow in the footsteps of Wilson in hopes of witnessing the morning flight at Cape May, the most historic and — given the right winds — often the most productive birding site on the east coast. If the weather has been favorable, we’ll begin by watching hordes of Eastern Kingbirds, Bobolinks, and other passerines at Higbee Beach and Hidden Valley, hoping for a wide selection of the 34 warbler species recorded at Cape May in late August; we’ll then work our way towards the South Cape May Meadows to look for Piping Plover, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Least and Royal Terns. As the morning warms up, the skies may fill with the raptors for which fall at Cape May is so famous; good numbers of Black Vultures, Ospreys, American Kestrels, and Merlins are likely.
We’ll have lunch in Cape May, then drive ten miles north along the shore to Nummy Island and Stone Harbor. Nummy, one of the most beautiful salt marshes on the mid-Atlantic coast, is a happy hunting ground for hungry wading birds, usually including Little Blue and Tricolored Herons and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. The island’s Laughing Gull colony is one of the largest in the world, and good numbers of Eastern Willet and American Oystercatcher forage in the marsh. The vast sandy point at Stone Harbor is home to a large colony of Black Skimmers, and the pools behind the dunes draw large numbers of migrant shorebirds, in some years including such rarities as Curlew Sandpiper or even that large-billed southern plover first collected here by Wilson more than 200 years ago. Night in Philadelphia.
Day 4: We’ll recover from yesterday’s birding overload with a relatively late hotel breakfast and a short walk through the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The refuge’s shallow ponds are the resort of a wide variety of waterfowl, including Wood and American Black Ducks; this is also the season for visits by uncommon southern wading birds such as Tricolored Heron or Glossy Ibis. If the winds are right, Tinicum’s scrubby woods can be a very good migrant trap, serving as an oasis in the city for good numbers of warblers and other southbound passerines.
We’ll bring our birding to a reluctant close in the late morning, then drive the two miles to Philadelphia International Airport, where the tour ends at noon.
Bird lists and other information will be available very soon at the WINGS website. And if you have any questions, feel free to drop me an e. See you in August!
In late August of 2013, I’ll be leading a short WINGS tour to some of the sites Alexander Wilson — the father of American ornithology — birded in Pennsylvania and New Jersey; on the 200th anniversary of his death, we’ll finish up, just as he did, in the cemetery of the Old Swedish Church in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, concerned that he isn’t getting quite the attention he deserves, I’ve set up a new facebook page for Wilson, and I’m hoping that we can all keep it busy as we celebrate the last “Wilson year” any of us is likely to experience (well, until 2016). We’ve already got a good number of birders, historians, and birding historians signed up and playing along.
And posing good questions.
One of the first was about the Wilson’s Bird-of-paradise, the astonishing beast in the photo above (what feet!). The question: which Wilson?
Bo Beolens’s helpful and handy Whose Bird says that it was our Wilson, but much as I like the book (and use it almost every day), we’ve all learned long ago to be cautious (haven’t we?) in repeating assertions not backed up by usable citations to primary sources.
This is precisely the sort of easy, straightforward, merely factual question that I use google for. So how about
The Wikipedia article comes up first, of course, and as is almost always the case with the bird entries, it’s just fine, if, as is almost always the case with the bird entries, not overly well written.
Here’s what it says (and what is repeated over and over on the web):
The controversial scientific name of this species was given by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew and a republican idealist, who described the bird from a badly damaged trade specimen purchased by British ornithologist Edward Wilson. In doing so, he beat John Cassin, who wanted to name the bird in honor of Wilson, by several months.
Now this sounds a lot more interesting. But please, sirs, what’s your source?
Thank goodness for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. I’ve said it before, but this is the very best resource for anyone interested in going ad fontes for the discovery and description of birds. We don’t have to deal with the accounts given in secondary sources any more: without leaving my hot chocolate behind, without roaming the stacks or riding a time machine, I can see just what was going on nearly 163 years ago.
First stop: Peters’s Check-list of Birds of the World. Volume XVI is the index, and we just look up respublica to find the right volume and page (genera change over the years, but species epithets shouldn’t, at least not as often).
And there are the citations to the original descriptions by Bonaparte and Cassin — and in fact, they are just six months apart.
There’s not much to Bonaparte’s proclamation of his sp. nov. Indeed, the description is in a footnote (this happens more often than you might think) to an article about parrot taxonomy. But even though it doesn’t fit thematically, Bonaparte wrote (in a mixture of French and Latin),
we believe that we should not put off publishing one of the most magnificent species that has been discovered in a great while…. This new species, Lophorina respublica, is characterized by the red cloak formed of the elongated feathers of the nape. This is contrasted with the distinguishing mark of Lophorina superba, the yellow cloak formed of the elongated feathers of the nape.
Two weeks later, in the next issue of the Comptes rendus, Bonaparte published, again in a footnote, a correction to his description:
thanks to a slip of the pen, the remarkable new species of bird 0f paradise that I described in a note to my previous essay was incorrectly compared to the Superb Bird of paradise; in fact it is allied to the Magnificent Bird of paradise, and so it is Diphyllodes (not Lophorina) respublica.
And what about Cassin? On August 27 of that year, working from the same (at that time still unique) “slightly mutilated” specimen, John Cassin (who was, incidentally, born two weeks after Alexander Wilson’s death) published his long and detailed description of the bird he named Paradisea Wilsonii, a “very handsome paradise bird” that he considered
one of the most valuable and interesting of the many contributions to the collection of this Academy, made by Mr. Edward Wilson, of Lydstip house, Pembrokeshire, to whom I have taken the liberty of dedicating it, as a slight acknowledgment of his valuable services to the cause of the zoological sciences in this country…. The specimen was obtained by Mr. Wilson in England, but bears no label indicating locality.
So there’s the answer to our question: Cassin’s Wilson was not our Wilson, but rather — just as Wikipedia says — another nineteenth-century British ornithologist with ties to Philadelphia. Significant ties, at that, as the Wilson papers at the University of Delaware attest:
Thomas B. Wilson and his brother Edward Wilson gave more than 15,000 books to the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and more than 28,000 specimens to the museum, in addition to donating the money to build one of its wings. They were essential early benefactors of the institution, helping to establish it as a world-class institution. The brothers collected books and natural specimens of birds, shells, and minerals….
As usual, though, it’s the stuff at the edges that captures our attention. Where does the Wikipedia compiler have this notion that Bonaparte’s name was “controversial,” and why the pointed reference to his “republican idealism”?
Coincidentally, this morning’s mail brought a copy of David Attenborough and Errol Fuller’s new Drawn From Paradise: The Natural History, Art and Discovery of the Birds of Paradise, with Rare Archival Art. It’s a lovely “coffee table” book with an extensive and so far very informative text; the book’s large format does justice to the paintings within and has the added benefit of helping that subtitle to fit on the cover. And what do we find inside, without citations?
A specimen [of the Wilson's Bird-of-paradise] reached Europe in 1849 and was acquired by an English ornithologist, Edward Wilson (1808-88)…. John Cassin … named the bird after Wilson in recognition of his gift. Today it is still usually known as Wilson’s Bird of Paradise. But not scientifically…. Bonaparte … rushed his own description into print, just beating Cassin’s … and thus claiming priority. Despite his grand title of Prince of Canino and Musignano, something of the old revolutionary zeal still burned in Bonaparte’s veins. Stating that he cared nothing for any ruler in the world, and directing a sneer at all those who named these exotic species in [honor] of the royal houses of Europe, he called the new discovery respublica — the Republican Bird of Paradise. It had taken two and a half centuries, but no longer were birds of the genus Cicinnurus the exclusive preserve of Habsburg emperors and their descendants. They had been given to The People.
Whew. So now, somehow, we know the date when the skin arrived in Europe? Somehow we know that Bonaparte was in a rush to scoop Cassin’s description? Somehow we know not only what he “stated” but the very direction of his “sneer”?
This story just gets better and better. So much better, in fact, that it’s time to go back to the sources again.
One of the great features of BHL, and one that I think not many people know about, is its bibliography by page for scientific names. Just go to
and add a binomial after the slash, connecting genus and species with a single underscore, as in
You’ll get a page with “live” links to online works in the BHL that cite the name in question, the sort of thing you could never come up with on your own even with an army of competent research assistants.
In our case, we discover right away that the species epithet respublica really was controverted in the 1850s. Sclater, in a priceless report on his visits to United States museums, points out in 1857 that
even after the correction of the error in the generic appellation … the descriptive phrase given by the Prince is quite erroneous, and such as the bird cannot by any possibility be recognized by, [and so] I must say I think it very questionable whether we ought not to employ Cassin’s name Wilsoni for this species, although certainly subsequent in time to Prince Bonaparte’s term respublica,
which is precisely what Sclater did. Bonaparte had published a footnote [!] with a slightly fuller, slightly better description of the specimen in 1854, but even twenty years later Sclater was still insisting that the name respublica be not just rejected but expunged:
I was informed upon the best authority that the late Prince Bonaparte, having been allowed to examine the (the unique) type specimen in question, before its transmission to Philadelphia, thought the opportunity of describing a new Paradise-bird, and at the same time of promulgating his republican sympathies, too good to be lost, and in spite of the injunctions of the owner of the specimen, inserted the name “respublica,” with a short diagnosis (certainly erroneous, and probably drawn up from recollection), in a footnote…. Bonaparte’s Lophorina (sive Diphyllodes) respublica should be rejected for insufficient definition…. [as] a subject of conjecture, or even of disputed evidence….
The British ornithological establishment agreed (the Philadelphians, too, naturally), and Rothschild was still using wilsonii (assigned to a new genus Schlegelia, named for Bonaparte’s posthumous editor) as late as 1898 in his Paradiseidae.
As to Bonaparte’s famous “republican sympathies,” his 1850 description contains nothing of the kind, apart from the epithet itself, of course. But four years later, when he listed the species in his great Conspectus generum avium, he not only back-dated his original description to 1849 (take that, John Cassin), but added the following Latin note, one deemed “humorous” by later French colleagues:
There may be those who strive with extreme enthusiasm to give the most beautiful species the names of princes; but for my part, I, who care nothing at all for the authority of all the princes, have adorned this most beautiful of the birds of paradise with the name of The Republic: that Republic which would be paradise were it not made hell by the wicked ways and ambition of those unworthy men who have taken on the name of “republicans.” But though there might not exist a paradise of a republic [Respublica paradisea], let there at least be a Republican Bird of paradise [Paradisea respublica]!
With this, I think, we’ve managed to account for almost every element of the story: we have Sclater to thank for the idea that Bonaparte was eager to scoop Cassin, an eagerness that I think is confirmed by the back-dating of Bonaparte’s description to 1849. And it is Bonaparte who, four years later, made explicit the connection between his republican fervor and the bird named “republic.”
What the modern story — whether in its internet form, or in the version in Drawn From Paradise — hasn’t done is fill in the relationship between Bonaparte and Edward Wilson. I suspect that that is because there is little available about Wilson, but couldn’t we take the few hints and run with them?
I take it as almost certain that Sclater’s “best authority” was Cassin, or maybe even Wilson himself. I can easily imagine that Bonaparte elbowed his way into Wilson’s cabinet and recognized the bird-of-paradise as new; Wilson, however, had already resolved to donate the specimen to the Philadelphia Academy, and must have supposed that Cassin would eventually describe the species himself.
Bonaparte knew that, too, and managed to take just a few surreptitious notes (or, as Sclater suspects, none at all) while he examined the skin that would soon enough be in Cassin’s hands at the Academy.
Anyone in Delaware next week might want to have a look at Folder 18 in the Wilson papers:
Inventories, Catalogues, and Invoices, 1846 – 1850: Mainly natural history specimens including birds, eggs, and minerals….
Maybe, just maybe, there is more information there about the skin and, hope beyond hope, a meeting in late 1849 between Edward Wilson and the man who named his bird of paradise. Let us know what you find out.
Traffic is heavy in Nassau, but I was still surprised when the brakes hit the floor and the sweetly polite young woman in charge of my first hours in The Bahamas uttered what I thought was a mild scatological expletive. But, no, she’d carefully voiced that final consonant, and sure enough, a huge land craB scrunched its way across the busy highway in front of us. I wasn’t in New Jersey any more.
I hadn’t expected shellfish on the pavement. In fact, I didn’t have any real expectations of the Bahamas at all. I’d read Tony White’s excellent bird-finding guide, I’d studied up on the splits and the endemics and the “Florida” specialties — and then I’d gone off to maritime Canada for a while. It took some real adjustment of my birding horizon when (eleven hours late; thanks, American Airlines!) I stepped off the plane in Nassau to the whirring trills of Gray Kingbirds.
Successfully avoiding any further crustacean crackups, Janel and I made our way into the center of town, where cheery little Cuban Grassquits (“life bird” number one, introduced or no) and a gawky juvenile Green Heron greeted us in the parking lot of the Ministry of Tourism. My meeting with the Director General was every bit as cordial as expected and every bit as interesting as hoped, and I left with a question in mind: Does the nation of The Bahamas, a political colony until 1973 and a site of touristic occupation still, have a local birding culture and community? And, to make of one question two, how can that local community make itself better known to the hordes of visiting birders who, like me, get off the plane or off the boat with their tabulae more or less rasae?
Over the course of too short a week on just five of the 700 far-flung islands that make up The Bahamas, I got answers to both questions, a definitive and heartening yes in response to the first, and a wide range of appealing and imaginative possibilities in response to the second. We’ve always known that The Bahamas has birds, but it also has generous and welcoming birders eager to help visitors, whether individuals or groups. And that’s all it takes for a country to be a first-class birding destination.
The point was driven home that first afternoon on Grand Bahama. Erika picked me up from the Freeport airport (island birding requires lots of flying for the birders, too), and we set off for the beautiful Garden of the Groves, where we birded on what started out as a warm, humid walk–and quickly became a warm, wet walk as the rain poured and poured and poured. I was happy, though, having seen the first of many Cuban Emeralds, and it was pleasantly tropical to sit under an umbrella and drink lemonade while we chatted about birding, tourism, and birding tourism.
Finally the skies lightened, and we headed over to the Taino Trail, a wonderfully dense bit of coppice woodland that harbored, among many other delights, my first Western Spindalis. The eleven ponds of the Reef Golf Course, pleasantly deserted after the rain, had attracted more than 120 Black-bellied Plover, no doubt migrants forced down by the storm; inspired by their gobbling of worms on the wet grass, we had a delicious meal ourselves at UNEXSO, watching the sun set over the water.
That same sun rose mighty early the next morning.
Shamie met me at the Bell Channel and we set off to explore more of Grand Bahama’s surprising range of habitats. We started at dawn at Barbary Beach, admiring the colorful eastern sky and eventually watching a couple of Royal Terns offshore and a few shorebirds on the beach–I was happy, as always, to see Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, perhaps some of the same juveniles that I’d seen on Grand Manan a week earlier.
We spent considerable time out in the pine and thatch palm forest looking for, and failing to find, the extraordinarily rare local race of the Brown-headed Nuthatch, but those same woods, conveniently transected by roads leading to still undeveloped developments, are the habitat of the Bahama Warbler, recently elevated to full-species status and, as great comparisons with Yellow-throated Warblers demonstrated, easily distinguished from their white-bellied cousins. And even the relatively quiet moments were not without their divertissements, among them beautiful clear-winged “wasp” moths.
We finally, reluctantly, abandoned our search for the sittids and drove a short distance to Lucayan National Park, named for the people who inhabited many of the Bahama islands before European settlement.
Here one of the great desiderata of my week was satisfied: excellent close looks at Loggerhead Kingbirds, a species I’d been fascinated with for years.
They are vocally obviously different from Eastern Kingbirds, and the bill size and dark crown and auriculars are equally apparent, but this is not a bird that would immediately pop out at the observer out of its usual range. I feel more prepared, though, now for the one that will eventually stray to New Jersey.
Here, too, I saw my first Cuban Pewees, stumpy-winged little flycatchers with monocles that keep sliding off their eyes.
The park proper is actually rather small, but stretching from pine forest to beach, from limestone caves to mangrove flats, its variety made it seem much larger, and we had a wonderful walk through its full range of habitats before repairing to another golf course pond, this one overgrown and secluded enough for ducks. Among the Blue-winged Teal, which seemed to be arriving in numbers at just about every pond we visited over the week, there floated a single Northern Shoveler and my first truly wild White-cheeked Pintails.
We were having a great time, but one eye was always on the clock: I had to be at the airport, again. It was a quick and easy flight to Marsh Harbour, on Abaco Island, where I was met and soon whisked off to the north, where Woody and I set out in his boat on a splendid and sunny evening to Green Turtle Cay.
Reddish Egrets danced in the shallows while Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, miffed at the bright skies, sulked under the mangroves. The tide had just turned, and the flats were still low enough that there were shorebirds in the water: four species of plover, a pair of American Oystercatchers, a dozen Short-billed Dowitchers, four Red Knots, and a couple of Western Sandpipers fed not far away from the boat. We found the water inviting, too, and walked through the sea grass and the urchins to get closer. Along the way, Woody found this spectacular King Helmet, its inhabitant still thriving inside:
Definitely not in New Jersey anymore.
It had been a long, full day, but the wide-ranging conversation with Betsy and Woody over supper was all about birds and books and birders and birding, and I was sorry to see the evening end. That didn’t keep my eyes from closing as soon as my head hit the pilla in my villa, and my dreams were full of the day’s birds–and tomorrow’s plans.