Big Moth

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I tagged along on Dan and David’s Brookdale Park walk this morning, curious to see what it was like as the annual Joldrums descend on New Jersey’s woodlands. And it was pretty much as you’d expect: the odd eastern wood-pewee whining from the treetops, blue jays slipping through the foliage, chimney swifts and barn swallows hunting the skies. Very pleasant, very enjoyable, but not overly birdy.

big silk moth

The big find of the morning, for me at least, was this enormous silk moth, a polyphemus, if my primitive picture-matching led me aright. Now to see a live one sometime!

(Anybody else think of Annie Dillard with a shiver?)

Categories : Birding New Jersey
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Alexander Rider, Black-backed Woodpecker, Bonaparte

Got a woodpecker question? Gerard Gorman’s new guide to the world’s picids is likely to answer it.

We weren’t so lucky back in 1828, when Alexander Rider produced the first painting of a black-backed woodpecker, for publication in Charles Bonaparte’s American Ornithology. To my eye, this is one of the most charming figures in the entire four-volume work, ornamental and informative all at once in spite of its classically Riderian stiffness.

But there’s more to this figure than mere prettiness. The story begins with Bonaparte’s caption:

Screenshot 2014-07-22 11.25.43

That’s right: The prince of ornithology identifies this bird, which Rider painted from the “finest male specimen” in Bonaparte’s own collection, as the northern three-toed woodpecker, Picus Tridactylus.

Study of the accounts in other works convinced Bonaparte

that [this] species is subject to variations in size and plumage… thus, in some specimens the [nape] is described [as] white, or partly whitish, instead of being wholly black: the back is also said to be waved with white….

Those specimens, obviously, were of the “real” American three-toed woodpecker, even the darkest individuals of which differ from the black-backed in their white markings above. But Bonaparte, not recognizing that he had before him an undescribed species, analyzed the difference as one of age:

the young of both sexes are of a dull blackish… the feathers of the back being banded with white, giv[ing] to that part a waved appearance…

American Three-toed Woodpecker

The logical result: America had but one species of six-toed woodpecker, adults of which had solid black backs and the young barred. Bonaparte was proud of having at last solved the puzzle:

we feel much gratification in being enabled to unveil to ornithologists the mystery of these diversities in this species, by merely pointing out the sexual differences, as well as those originating in the gradual change from youth to maturity….

With the benefit of 185 years of hindsight, of course, we know that Bonaparte was wrong. Not five years after the publication of the American Ornithology, William Swainson re-analyzed Bonaparte’s bird as a distinct species, the Arctic three-toed woodpecker.

black-backed woodpecker, Fauna bor-am

In addition to what were now the obvious differences in plumage, the new woodpecker was “in every respect” larger than what Swainson called “the common species,” with a bill “considerably longer in proportion” and the wing more pointed in structure. Swainson’s formal description mentions Bonaparte only in the synonymy, but the paraliptic remark in the account of the American three-toed woodpecker must have stung:

it would be tedious, and it is perhaps unnecessary, to show in what manner all preceding ornithologists have confounded the northern three-toed Woodpeckers.

Indeed, even just after the publication of the Fauna boreali-americanaAudubon and Nuttall were still following Bonaparte’s classification.

Audubon did not recognize the two species as distinct until very late in the preparation of the Birds of America, noting in the final volume of the Ornithological Biography that he, like everyone else, had “looked upon” the bird we know as the American three-toed woodpecker “as the young of the species just mentioned,” namely, our black-backed woodpecker.

Nuttall, too, came around in the 1840 edition of his Manual, listing both species — the one glossy black above, the other “varied with black and white.”

Good to have all that settled.

Unfortunately, even after the true relationship of the two birds had been figured out, their English names continued to be a source of confusion for more than a century to come. In particular, the label “northern three-toed” has been applied at one time or another to each, and it is a relief — a more or less permanent one, I hope — that that name has been retired.

As if all this weren’t enough, there remains the question of Vieillot’s Picus hirsutus, cited by the older authorities as the original description of our American three-toed woodpecker. But that, thankfully, is another story, a story that will have to wait for another time.

Woodpeckers, Ridgway, Baird History

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Adirondacks view

What could possibly make a fine weekend with friends even better? The title of this entry says it all.

Not only did we get to spend time with Sally and Frank at their beautiful and comfortable Adirondacks camp, not only did we get to meet several others of their delightful friends, not only did Gellert form an instant and lasting bond with two new canine buddies, but Sunday’s birding led to a lifer for both Alison and me.

Sally, Alison, Merlin in Adirondacks

Saturday evening’s dinner conversation ranged widely and well, with birds prominent but never dominant; all the same, I made sure to listen hard to Pat and John’s excellent advice for our search. Early the next morning found us on a lovely bog road near Saranac Lake, with magnolia and black-throated green warblers and blue-headed vireos singing all around. We walked and listened, listened and walked, and drove a little farther.

Adirondacks landscape

And then Sally’s keen ears heard it. The first bird my binoculars found was a yellow-bellied sapsucker — and the second as well, two of those elegant woodpeckers together in a dead, nearly barkless snag. Immediately beneath them, though, another woodpecker. The woodpecker.

Black-backed woodpecker

A couple of patient minutes later, and this black-backed woodpecker was right on the roadside, not far above eye level and just one thin layer of trees in from where we watched, rapt and almost unbelieving. He — it took a while for the little round forehead patch to be visible even at such close range — drummed repeatedly, a “tight” series of a dozen or more beats coming too close and too fast together to distinguish and to count. A minute or more passed between drums, when the bird slipped to the back side of his perch and vanished, a sobering reminder of how fortunate we were to be standing on the road when he called the first time.

After several minutes of this, he flew back across the road, where he took a high perch in the open, more distant but photographable even for me. Again, he drummed continually, this time less frequently, the intervals filled with short bouts of preening and that golden crown glinting in the morning sun.

Black-backed woodpecker

We left the bird enjoying the sunshine, but he wasn’t alone. Just as he’d been attended by two sapsuckers when we first saw him, it took a scant few seconds for a sapsucker — one of the original two, or a third bird? — to join him in his preening tree, where the sapsucker maintained a respectful three or four feet of distance.

What all that was about isn’t at all clear. Though the smaller birds kept their distance, there was no obvious aggression on the part of the bigger black-back, and no clear signs of anxiety on the part of either species. All three of the perches taken by the black-back were in decidedly dead wood, making it seem very unlikely that the sapsuckers were guarding sap wells.

A mystery — and one that surely makes it worth seeing this species again. And again and again.

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Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

August 2: Birding Sweetwater Wetlands with Tucson Audubon Society.

August 2-9: Birding southeast Arizona with the Fontenelle Bird Club.

August 20: Owls: Prophets of Woe and Mischance.” Bloomfield Public Library.

September 8: Birding Brookdale Park.

September 10: Birding Brookdale Park.

September 12: Birding Brookdale Park.

September 15: Birding Brookdale Park.

September 21-27: Birding Cape May with WINGS.

October 2: Lecture and book signing for the Southern Ocean Birding Group.

October 15: Lecture and book signing for the Bergen County Audubon Society.

November 8: Birding Sandy Hook with the Linnaean Society of New York.

February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.

February 19: Lecture and book signing for the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.

March 13-18: Birding southeast Arizona with the Linnaean Society of New York.

March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.

April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.


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Lewis and Clark don’t get much credit nowadays for their contributions to the natural history of the Great Plains. We all know about their discoveries, of course, from black-tailed prairie-dogs to western meadowlarks; but the standard story, I think, treats the acquisition of those novelties as merely incidental to the purposes and efforts of the Corps of Discovery.

And there’s something to it. In his charge to the expedition’s leaders, Thomas Jefferson seems to have intentionally suppressed his own unbounded interest in things wild and alive, emphasizing instead — no doubt to the benefit of suspicious minds in Congress — the military and economic goals of the great journey.

At the same time, though, a rereading of the journals of Clark and Lewis reveals that though their priorities may have been elsewhere, they were, when it came to it, much better observers than we sometimes recall.

On July 20, 1805, Meriwether Lewis

saw  a black woodpecker … about the size of the lark woodpecker as black as a crow. I indevoured to get a shoot at it but could not. it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys a good deel like the jay bird.

Not until May of the next year did the expedition procure specimens of the bird, but what strikes me is just how perceptive Lewis was in describing the bird he “indevoured” to shoot in that first encounter. Even now, twenty-one decades later in the twenty-first century, the field character most of us most of the time to identify the Lewis’s woodpecker is that odd, powerful, corvid-like flight.

And the first white man to see the bird was the first white man to notice that flight. Well done, Meriwether Lewis.

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