Friday, November 17, 2006

Townsend's Solitaire

On this day in 1980, a Townsend's Solitaire was found at Sunrise Mountain in Sussex County by C. Wood and J. Climpson. The bird "was enjoyed by many as it fed on mountain ash berries through the period" (Paxton et al. 1981). This bird stayed until 14 December 1980. Interestingly, NJ's ninth record of Varied Thrush, another western thrush, arrived a few days earlier on 15 November in Allamuchy State Park in Warren County.

In another odd coincidence, NJ's third record of the solitaire was also at Sunrise Mountain on 15 November 1987. If these records had occurred in consecutive years, it would be tempting to think that they might refer to the same bird, but seven years apart is another matter. In total, NJ has five records of this thrush; the first three were from the northern part of the state, but the two most recent (including the popular long-staying bird in Heislerville, Cumberland County) have been from the coastal plain. The Heislerville bird was found on 27 December 1998 and proceeded to overwinter until 18 April 1999.

Other Northeastern states show a similar pattern of occurrence for Townsend's Solitaire; a mere scattering of records, almost all in the fall.

Paxton, Robert O., William J. Boyle, Jr., & David A. Cutler. 1981. The Autumn Migration, Hudson-Delaware Region. American Birds 35:162-166.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Brown-chested Martin

On this day in 1997, Paul Lehman was indulging in what has become a popular autumn Cape May pastime: sorting through flocks of swallows. Under optimal conditions, big swallow flocks can be found anywhere around the southern end of Cape Island; Lehman happened to be at the South Cape May Meadows. As he looked through a flock of 50 to 75 Tree Swallows, he spotted a martin. Any November martin would be highly unusual as virtually all Purple Martins leave the state by the end of September (Walsh et al. 1999). After a few seconds, the martin headed off toward Cape May Point State Park and Lehman returned home to check some books and get the word out to the locals. Further glimpses of the bird were had by various birders over the course of the afternoon, and the identification seemed to come down to a choice between Purple and Brown-chested Martins. The only previous confirmed North American record of Brown-chested Martin was a bird that was collected on Monomoy Island off Cape Cod in Massachusetts on 12 June 1983.

Lehman (1998) tells the story in detail: how after the first day of the martin's stay, local birders were left with the feeling that it was an odd Purple Martin. More research was done and out-of-state birders were consulted overnight. The locals were out in force the next morning, despite unpromising weather, and the martin was relocated on the west side of Cape May Point by the gingerbread church. The martin's companions included late Barn and Cliff Swallows, late Chimney Swifts and "as many as 5 Cave Swallows." The martin was determined to be a Brown-chested Martin and the twitch was on.

The martin was seen until 15 November, when it seemed to be in poor condition; it was not seen afterward and was presumed to have succumbed during the night. Before then, as many as a thousand birders may have participated in what one of my birding friends fondly remembers as "Martin Madness."

Lehman, Paul. 1998. Brown-chested Martin in Cape May!: First New Jersey and Second Documented North American Record. Records of New Jersey Birds 24:66-69.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Boreal Owl

On this day in 1962, a Boreal Owl hit a building at Raritan Arsenal, near Bonhamtown, in Middlesex County. John Bull (1975) picks up the story by quoting a letter from Irving Black: "It was taken to the home of a boy, Joseph Mish (about 15),...and kept alive for about a week. After death it was buried carefully in a cloth. Before death there evidently had been no feeling that the bird was anything of interest, but later the boy kept pointing to illustrations of the Boreal Owl and insisted that was what his bird was. Because of this the bird was dug up in early February and brought to the Newark Museum." In what sounds like a sublime piece of understatement, Black's quote concludes, "It was in surprisingly good condition for a bird that had been dead three months."

NJ is not known for its abundance of irruptive northern owls apart from Short-eared Owls. This is the single accepted record of Boreal Owl for the state (there are two other reports). Pennsylvania has a single record of Boreal Owl from Allegheny County, about the same distance south as central NJ (McWilliams and Brauning 2000). If one wants to keep hope alive for future NJ Boreal Owl records, one can always look to the bird that showed up in Central Park a few years back. If a Boreal Owl can make it to Central Park, another can certainly find its way to NJ. At least, we can hope so.