Oct
26

Two Days in Cape May

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Yes, I’m still batting 1000 when it comes to fork-tailed flycatchers in New Jersey: Even with the bird’s street address in hand, I missed yet another one yesterday afternoon at Cape May.

And you know what? It doesn’t bother me in the least.

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Now that we’re almost three full hours away from New Jersey’s southernmost wedge of sandy land, we don’t get to Cape May very often. Back when we lived in that small central Jersey town with the large university, it seemed like nothing to drive two hours each way for a day with the sea and the sun and the birds, but for some reason the additional 50 minutes or so of parkway dampens my enthusiasm. And now that we live with a big dog, and on one academic salary to boot, staying over for a night or two or three has become a near-impossibility.

And so I looked forward that much more to getting to spend two days down that way this weekend, thanks to Scott & Nix and the Cape May Autumn Weekend. Wednesday night I packed my satchel, moved the slides for my lecture onto one of those magical memory sticks, and slept a few fitful hours before hitting the road (the already busy road: what are non-birders even doing up at such an hour?).

I pulled into the parking lot at Higbee Beach at the magical, still dim hour of 7:05, and already there was something in the air. Lots of somethings, in fact.

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The flight was steady and thoroughly October-like, dominated by myrtle warblers and ruby-crowned kinglets — so many of the latter flashing by, at all heights, apparently entirely unconcerned by my presence, that I began to worry my corpse might be found in the first field, covered with tiny puncture wounds. Pine siskins, purple finches, blue-headed vireos, chipping sparrows: It felt great to stand with the wind at the back, watching hundreds and thousands of birds dart overhead or pause in the brightening trees.

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The odd merlin and a constant stream of sharp-shinned hawks were enjoying it, too. Watching them partake inspired me, and as things slowed down around 9:30, I set off in search of my own breakfast. On returning to the parking lot, I found this gang staring down at me.

Black vulture

When the black vultures are up, it’s time to head for the hawk watch. I stepped out of the car to find a bird even bigger than the vultures, and more surprising, low overhead.

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This American white pelican made me wonder whether there was any reason to venture beyond the parking lot. There probably wasn’t. Palm warblers, Savannah sparrows, and white-throated sparrows thronged the edges of the lot, and if I’d been just a little bit taller, I might even have seen this snazzy drake Eurasian wigeon without stepping off pavement. It turned out to be the first of three or possibly four of that usually uncommon species I would run into — more like Vancouver than New Jersey.

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After a few minutes up on the platform — just enough, I hope, to prove myself not entirely asocial — I retreated to the solitude of the beach, where I could sit and watch the sparrows and warblers and kinglets on the dune while royal terns and black and surf scoters flew up and down the shore.

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At Cape May, you always want to be looking every direction at once, one eye on the sand, one on the water, one on the sky. That goes double (and that’s six eyes, for those keeping count) if you happen to be a potential prey item, I suppose.

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There was a good variety of hawks and falcons keeping the littler birds on their toes. I was happy to see a few broad-winged hawks, a little on the late side for that species, but the highlight for me, as on most late October trips to Cape May, was the chance to see red-shouldered hawks. Long ago someone let me in on a little secret: if you take up residence on a certain bench along a certain trail in the state park, the red-shoulders sometimes pass by nice and low, presumably hunting the treeline rather than spiraling anxiously higher and higher as they tend to do at the hawk watch proper.

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There weren’t many during the couple of hours I perched comfortably on my bench, maybe half a dozen, but they included one rosy-breasted adult — and the views were great, low and close.

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The only bad thing about an October day in Cape May is that dusk comes so soon. I’d booked my hotel in Absecon so that I could spend the evening at Brigantine, and already it was time to head north.

By the time I was out on the dikes in the late afternoon, the wind — the same wind that had made Higbee so good nine hours earlier — had calmed somewhat, and I was able to be out of the car and scoping comfortably. The birdlife was decidedly autumnal, with the beginnings of a nice selection of ducks, scattered flocks of Atlantic brant, and with the exception of a single juvenile semipalmated sandpiper, only the “late” shorebirds still around. Those first small flocks of dunlin are a sure sign that the seasons are changing.

Dunlin

The seasons, and the weather, too. When I left the hotel the next morning at 6:00, those wonderful northwest winds were back, but the sky was clearer and the air drier than the day before: another cold front had passed, and even in the dark I was seeing passerines cross the parkway as I drove south.

If Friday morning had been lively at Higbee, Saturday the air was alive. Thousands of American robins and myrtle warblers filled the sky, with purple finches, pine siskins, rusty blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, and a dozen other species in their wake. Even more exciting, the night had seen a big push of sparrows. Where I’d been happy to see the odd handful of slate-colored juncos on my first morning, here suddenly were great windrows of them on the paths and roadsides.

I’d intended to walk around the fields slowly, the usual routine, but I ended up standing place for two and a half hours, taking no more steps than absolutely necessary to yield the trail to other birders. My sedentary approach was less strategy than inevitability: every time I considered advancing just a little bit, another rush of sparrows burst out of the goldenrod and grass, or a winter wren hopped along the woodland edge behind me, or a yellow-billed cuckoo or yellow-breasted sapsucker swooped in to perch at close range. Or a junco, finding no easier perch, landed for a breath-taking moment on the long lens of the birder who had paused to talk.

It was spectacular, one of the most enjoyable mornings I’ve ever had birding in New Jersey, and the more exciting, as Kevin pointed out later in the day, for being most decidedly not a fallout: no wrecks, no storm-tossed waifs, no tiny creatures shivering for life in unwonted places and habitats. It was simply migration, abundant birds moving south in their abundance the way they have for a long, long time. Exhilarating and wonderful for the observer, no more hazardous than normal for the birds.

The pace had slowed by 10:00, and I was hungry. After breakfast I spent another hour watching Savannah sparrows in the dunes at the state park, then hied myself into town for my lecture. Understandably on so birdy an autumn day, the crowd was not large, but it was engaged and thoughtful — what more can one hope for?

George was good enough to take me to lunch, then we whiled away a birdy half hour at the state park before the book signing.

Rick signing books at Cape May

And then a low rumble was heard from the exhibition rooms. It was the voices of birders, the chatter taking on a new urgency. At the words “fork-tailed flycatcher,” the crowds evaporated and a parade took shape on the streets of old Cape May.

I followed. The bird was gone. But I’d had a great couple of days at what has rightly been called the center of the birding universe.

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Bonaparte's Gull

The Bonaparte’s gull has a lot going for it. It’s elegant in plumage, graceful in flight, and common enough over most of North America that at the right season, even new birders can count on getting good looks at this lovely little bird.

And as if all that weren’t enough, it has an interesting name, with a long and complicated story behind it to fill those odd bird-free moments afield.

Charles Bonaparte was still in short pants in Italy when George Ord named this “nondescript” in 1815.

ORD-George

I suppose it’s possible that Ord had heard of the 11-year-old prince, though I can’t imagine why, and maybe he was even able to keep the tangled web of Napoleon’s relations straight, though I can’t imagine how. But there is no way that he could have anticipated young Charlie’s future prominence in ornithology.

Not only did Ord not name this bird for Bonaparte, but he did not even recognize his specimen as a gull. In a slip understandable to anyone who has glimpsed one of these small, buoyant, thin-billed, white-primaried birds at a distance, Ord believed that it was a tern lying on the table in front of him, and he described it as a new species of Sterna, the banded-tail tern, S. Philadelphia.

Bonaparte's Gull

Ord’s English name refers, obviously, to the immature gull’s tail pattern. He offers no explanation of the scientific name, though it has always been assumed that his banded-tail tern was collected, like the “toothed-bill gull” he describes a few lines later, on the Delaware near Philadelphia.

Ord description of two gulls

Oddly enough for a bird we nowadays think of as so familiar, Ord’s ternish gull went unreported for some years after its original description. And when it was encountered again, it was treated as a discovery to be described anew– several times, in fact.

When in 1821 or early 1822 Samuel Rafinesque ran across a small gull he did not recognize near Harrodsburg, Kentucky, he shot it and described the bird in the Kentucky Gazette as a new species, Larus marginatus. In 1830, Coenraad Temminck published the adult of our gull under the name Larus melanorhinchus, the black-billed gull. (Never mind that the Leiden specimen was somehow labeled as collected in Chile.) Even as late as 1856, some of these birds were being assigned, if tentatively, to a certain Larus subulirostris, the awl-billed gull, a name coined in 1854 by (ready for this?) Charles Bonaparte.

Temminck, NouvRec 5:504

Meanwhile, other scientists were finding these birds and misidentifying them not as a new species but an “old” one, the even littler little gull. Joseph Sabine (of gull fame), Thomas Nuttall, and — irony upon irony — the grown-up Charles Bonaparte himself were using specimens of today’s Bonaparte’s gull as proof that the little gull (the different ages still thought of as different species, Pallas’s Larus minutus and Temminck’s Larus capistratus) occurred in North America. Bonaparte, in fact, informed New York’s Lyceum of Natural History in 1828 that capistratus – again, Temminck’s name for one plumage of the little gull — was

not very rare during autumn on the Delaware, and especially the Chesapeake; found as far inland as Trenton.

Fauna bor-am ii, Bonaparte's Gull

The most significant of these repeated discoveries and misidentifications was published in 1831. This time, John Richardson described a “new” gull taken at Great Slave Lake in May of 1826 and

 common in all parts of the fur countries, where it associates with the Terns, and is distinguished by its peculiar shrill and plaintive cry.

The Cree, he tells us, call the bird Akesey-keask, no doubt echoic of that same cry; but Richardson named it Larus bonapartii, the Bonapartian gull.

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Both names caught on, the vernacular and the scientific alike, and Larus bonapartii – or bonapartei, bonaparti, buonopartii, depending on who was doing the misspelling — would appear in the scientific literature through most of the nineteenth century, up to at least 1891, when Heinrich Gätke published his record of one “in winter plumage, with beautiful red feet,” on Helgoland.

Gätke, Vogelw. Helgoland

Today, of course, as we approach the two-hundredth anniversary of what was truly the first discovery and description of the species, while the English name “Bonaparte’s” persists, in scientifiquese we’ve gone back to Ord’s original species epithet philadelphia. For that application of priority we can thank George Newbold Lawrence, who in 1858 wrote that

 the specific name of “bonapartei,” under which this species has been so long known, in my opinion, must give place to that of Ord [philadelphia]; he also designates it as the “Banded-tail Tern.” To determine what species was described under the above name (if it was not distinct) has long been considered a problem which it was very desirable to solve; it agrees in every particular with specimens of the young of bonapartei, now under examination.

Lawrence also noted that it was most likely just “the slender and tern-like form of the bill [that] induced Mr. Ord to put it in Sterna.”

Four years later, Elliott Coues agreed with Spencer Baird‘s view that the birds originally named as little gulls by Sabine and the others had likely been misidentified:

a poorly preserved or immature specimen [of the Bonaparte's gull] might easily be referred to Larus minutus by one ignorant of the existence of two species.

Coues tells us, too, that Charles Bonaparte’s identifications of these birds as capistratus was “very erroneous,” and that that species was “quite another thing.” And one more piece in the old confusion fell when, as Coues reports, Hermann Schlegel, Temminck’s successor in Leiden, determined in 1863 that the older ornithologist’s melanorhynchus was likewise based on the Bonaparte’s gull.

It was a simple matter, then, to institute philadelphia as the correct scientific name for the bird. It’s nice all the same that Charles Bonaparte is still commemorated in its English name — and important, I think, to remember that George Ord had nothing to do with it.

Bonaparte's Gulls

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Oct
22

Suppression and Hypocrisy

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Sometimes it’s best not to tell people what you’ve seen.

It can be hard to keep quiet when you’ve discovered something really exciting, but there are times when the stakes are genuinely high, as they were along Florida’s Sebastian River in the late winter and spring of 1889.

On a birding trip to Brevard County that year, Frank Michler Chapman

found the only known roosting place of the Carolina paroquet … at the head of the Sebastian River in Florida … in a hollow tree. After he had gone, the place was found by another man, who, placing a gunny sack over the opening, captured all of them, and even cut down the tree, which he sold…. That was the last of the Carolina paroquet.

When Chapman told his story to the New York Times some 35 years later (and a half a decade after the much-mourned death of Incas in the Cincinnati Zoo), he neglected, conveniently, to mention the part he himself had played in the destruction of the Sebastian River flock. In 1890, freshly returned from Florida, Chapman reported to the Linnaean Society of New York:

Late one morning (March 15 [1889]) we found a flock of eight birds…. These birds took flight as we approached, but twice returned while we waited below, leaving five of their number with us. We secured in all, during our stay of one week, fifteen specimens.

As Noel Snyder rightly points out, the parakeet’s population in 1889 was likely still “substantial,” and neither Chapman’s collecting nor an anonymous Florida rube’s enterprise and ambition doomed the species.

Still, it remains difficult to reconcile the New York ornithologist’s repeated expressions of concern for the bird with his repeated collecting of specimens — as late as 1904, when Chapman, after finding only a dozen individuals in Okeechobee County, described the species in print as “apparently very rare,” he still shot four specimens, fully a third of all the parakeets he encountered.

As Snyder’s interviews and research discovered, the Carolina parakeet would survive as a species for another fifteen or twenty or thirty or even forty years, but Chapman’s elegiac tone in Bird-Lore and the Times makes his happy trigger finger even harder to understand — and even harder to forgive.

Photo by Pelican Island Audubon; specimen in the collections of Cornell University.

 

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I love a good appendix.

Lest you think I’m starting an especially ghoulish Halloween especially early, let me hasten to explain:

One of the best parts of Burtt and Davis’s Alexander Wilson is the two-page

list of books available to Alexander Wilson relating to zoology, especially ornithology, in the libraries of the American Philosophical Society, Library Company of Philadelphia, and William Bartram,

a hugely informative catalogue followed by tables indicating how often Wilson cited each. These few precious pages answer lots of questions — and raise even more that we might not even have thought to ask. And they give us a good sense of just how sloppy a bibliographer Wilson could occasionally be.

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In the third volume of the American Ornithology, Wilson announces the discovery of a bird he named Sylvia magnolia, the black and yellow warbler.

Wilson, magnolia warbler

He had collected two himself, and notes that Charles Willson Peale had earlier encountered “this elegant species” in the Philadelphia area.

With the pride of an immigrant, Wilson reminds his reader that

No notice has ever been taken of this bird by any European naturalist whose works I have examined.

Oh, really?

In 1758, eight years before Wilson’s birth, George Edwards presented a fine plate (better than Wilson’s) and a thorough description of the “yellow-rumped fly-catcher,” a bird he had received “preserved dry” from none other than a very young William Bartram, the very man who would nearly half a century later become Wilson’s patron and encourager. To Bartram goes the honor of discovery.

Edwards, magnolia warbler

Mathurin Brisson introduced the bird to continental readers in 1760, citing and largely translating Edwards’s text in the third volume of the Ornithologie. Buffon referred to both Edwards and Brisson for this species, taking the opportunity to gently reproach the Englishman for calling it a moucherolle – a flycatcher — rather than a warbler. John Latham listed the species in his Synopsis in 1783. Two years later, Thomas Pennant included a description of the species in the Arctic Zoology. In 1788, Wilson’s “new” warbler entered the Linnaean canon when it was listed in Gmelin‘s edition of the Systema. Latham used Gmelin’s name, maculosa, in his Index of 1790, published four years before Wilson arrived in America.

I’ve piled up all those names and dates and references to make my point even more, ahem, pointed.

According to Burtt and Davis, Wilson in the American Ornithology cites Edwards 55 times, William Bartram 62 times, Brisson 82 times, Buffon 151 times, and Latham 173 times. He refers to Gmelin only once — and to Gmelin’s English translator, Turton, 64 times.

But not once, in the course of consulting these standard works a minimum of 588 times, did Wilson come across Edwards’s yellow-rump.

Why not? He just plain overlooked it, obviously. But little lapses like this only make their scarcity the more impressive in Wilson’s monumental work.

If you made it to the end of that heap of names and dates a couple of paragraphs up, you will be wondering what ever happened to Dendroica maculosa. To Wilson’s great and good posthumous fortune, Gmelin’s name Motacilla maculosa turned out to have already been used in 1783 by Boddaert to name the Karoo prinia. Wilson’s name, published in 1811, was the next available. 

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Oct
20

That First Yellow-rump

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Myrtle warbler

It’s October now, and they’re everywhere here in northern New Jersey, woods and thickets and messy backyards full of their homely little tock notes.

Yellow-rumped warblers are so abundant and so familiar that we can forget that they had to be “discovered” for European science. But it should be easy enough to find out who deserves credit for shooting and describing the first one.

Shouldn’t it?

The first western scientist to apply the name “yellow-rump” to a parulid was, unsurprisingly, Mark Catesby. Catesby’s description , however, of his Virginia specimens is remarkably scant:

This is a Creeper, and seems to be of the Tit-kind. The most distinguish’d Part of this Bird is its Rump, which is yellow. All the Rest of the Feathers are brown, having a faint Tincture of Green. It runs about the Bodies of Trees, and feeds on Insects, which it pecks from the Crevises of the Bark. The Hen differs little from the Cock in the Colour of its Feathers.

None too informative, is it? Fortunately, Catesby’s plate should clear things up.

Or so one might think.

Catesby, The yellow-rump

Recently, most ornithologists have been content to identify Catesby’s yellow-rump with our yellow-rump, the bird now known as Setophaga coronata; it’s as good a guess as any, though I often wonder whether we might not be looking at, and Catesby describing, one of those so dull Cape May warblers one runs into this time of year.

What we do know is that Linnaeus, who named so many organisms in reliance on Catesby’s Natural History, did not believe that Catesby had depicted coronata, which the Archiater described instead from a handsome and well-detailed plate by George Edwards (whose Motacilla corona aurea was, of course, the inspiration for the Linnaean name).

Edwards, too, another of Catesby’s closest readers, failed to recognize in the old “yellow-rump” the warbler he, Edwards, was describing; indeed, he says in 1760, 28 years after the first publication of the Catesbeian plate, that

these birds, I think, may safely be pronounced non-descripts,

that is, members of a species not yet formally described to science.

What do you think? Is Mark Catesby’s “yellow-rump” a yellow-rump?

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