Thursday, November 01, 2007

Boreal Chickadee

On this day in 1913, Charles R. Sleight collected a Boreal Chickadee of the hudsonicus race in Ramsey, Bergen County (Fables 1955, Miller 1920). The specimen currently resides in the collection of the American Museum of Natural History.

Boreal Chickadee is one of those species that has vanished from NJ in recent history. At one time, it could be counted as a winter irruptive like Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches, crossbills, and various other birds of the "northern but enjoying an occasional southern winter holiday" persuasion. Heck, even Black-capped Chickadee is a winter irruptive in south Jersey. There were strong flights of Boreal Chickadees in the winters of 1913-1914 and 1916-1917 (Stone 1965).

The NJBRC put Boreal Chickadee on its review list in 1996. The only report the committee has had to review since then was one from 1981 in West Milford, Passaic County, from Dave Sibley et al. The 1996 NJBRC Annual Report says, "At least two individuals present for weeks before and after this date. There were other records as well during the winter of 1980-1981 in northern New Jersey" (Crossley & Sibley 1996).

One interesting aspect of Boreal Chckadee occurrence in NJ is the subspecies involved. The 1913 record was of the hudsonicus subspecies, but birds from the 1916-1917 irruption were of the littoralis and nigricans subspecies (Fables 1955, Miller 1917). The nigricans subspecies, however, has not stood the test of time, since it is not listed in the Boreal Chickadee account in Harrap & Quinn (1995).

Witmer Stone may get the award for NJ birder optimism for his statement: " has, of course, not been seen at Cape May but, inasmuch as Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills occurred with the Hudsonian Chickadees at Plainfield, both of which have been recorded from Cape May, its occurrence there, in some future wave of northern bird life, is not beyond the range of possibility" (Stone 1965).

Crossley, Richard, & David Sibley. 1996. New Jersey Records Committee annual report - 1996. Records of New Jersey Birds 22:94-98.
Harrap, Simon, & David Quinn. 1995. Chickadess, Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Miller, W. DeWitt. 1917. Rare winter visitants in the vicinity of Plainfield, New Jersey. Auk 34:218-219. PDF here
Miller, W. DeWitt. 1920. The Hudsonian Chickadee in New Jersey. Auk 37:593-594. PDF here

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lark Bunting

On this day in 1956, R. Grant, Quinton Kramer, Irving Black, Donald Kunkle and others found a female Lark Bunting in a flock of House Sparrows at Cape May Point (Kunkle 1959).

This was the first of five accepted NJ state records, three of which come from Cape May County. The second state record was a bird collected at Island Beach State Park, Ocean County, in 1962 (Warburton 1968). The only non-coastal record comes from Piscataway, Middlesex County (Hanson 2007).

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the few Lark Bunting records for NJ is how tightly grouped they are in time. Dates range from 27 August to 18 September. When one expands the scope of one's inquiry to other states, however, other possibilities begin to appear. Birds have overwintered at feeders in both New York (Levine 1998) and Massachusetts (Veit & Petersen 1993), and both states have a few spring records. Massachusetts' "fall" range of Lark Bunting records ranges from July to early December (Veit & Petersen 1993). All of this suggests that NJ's distinct pattern of occurrence may in fact be an artifact of a small sample size.

Warburton, Mabel. 1968. Lark Bunting in New Jersey. Wilson Bulletin 80:495. PDF here

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Another Sort of History

Tropical Sage
When we think of history, most of us think of books, historical documents and other text-based objects. If we want to get more inclusive, we might add "oral history" or storytelling, which is not tied to a piece of paper but is still conveyed in human words.

This blog's subject is the history of a part of the natural world, however. It's impossible for a human being to know if creatures we think of as part of "the natural world" have their own forms of history, but watching the ebb and flow of different organisms and habitats in a finite geographical area (like NJ) is history of a sort.

I'm a very novice gardener. I only have a deck to work with, which is home to various pots of herbs, vegetables and a few plants that I hope might attract some butterflies someday. The blossom that illustrates this post is from a Tropical Sage plant; it has just started blooming and with luck will continue blooming deep into fall. The plant has thrived this summer, despite its inauspicious origins from year-old seeds and sage's reputation for being difficult to grow from seed.

This plant is the direct descendant of an expanse of Tropical Sage plants in a yard in the Villas, Cape May County, that has attracted many rare hummers, including the Calliope Hummingbird that led me to visit the yard myself. While waiting for the bird to show up, I chatted with Jim Dowdell about various things, including gardening for hummers and butterflies. Jim was kind enough to give me some seeds from his Tropical Sage, and I finally got around to planting, a year late. It seems not to have mattered.

I'm not the sort of person who invites myself into other peoples' yards for good birds, even if permission has already been put out there on the hotline. I first met Jim when he was the proprietor of For the Birds, a nature store that some other veterans of Cape May in the 90s may remember. That made it easier to visit and chat for a shy person like myself.

So, this plant blooming on my deck and a Calliope Hummingbird that visited the Villas in late 2004 have a direct historical connection, as far as I'm concerned. That's no guarantee that another rare western hummer will visit my deck this fall, but it gives me a reason to smile when I look at the Tropical Sage, and that's good enough for me.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

OT: Eight Random Facts

Well, as I was minding my own business researching some posts, David over at woodcreeper tagged me for the "Eight Random Facts" meme that is currently percolating through the blogosphere.

These are the meme rules:

Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

Please pardon this brief detour from the main business of this blog. Think of it as summer vacation reading, if you like. Birding will resume shortly.

1. My 500th life bird was a Brown-headed Nuthatch at Chincoteague in Virginia.

2. Three of my ancestors fought in (and survived) the Civil War: Henry Milton Kromer (88th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, 142nd Indiana Volunteer Infantry), Joseph Christian McKenzie (regiment so far unknown), and Seymour Pugh Snyder (44th Indiana Volunteer Infantry). If you hadn't guessed, genealogy is one of my non-birding hobbies.

3. Starting in 1997, I attended the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival for ten straight years. This year broke the string, alas, but I hope to start a new run next year on FRFF's 20th annniversary.

4. Major league ballparks where I've seen baseball games include Fenway Park, Shea Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Veterans Stadium. The Vet no longer exists, Tiger Stadium is about to be demolished, and Shea is due to be retired soon.

5. In my college and immediate post-college years, I entertained myself by drawing comics, including a humorous space opera and a disorganized Lovecraftian pastiche. Oddly enough, drawing comics has helped my field sketching; both types of drawing place a premium on catching a quick impression of the subject.

6. My favorite ice cream flavor is pistachio.

7. I was an extra for a background crowd scene on a Star Trek book cover...well, two of them, actually (two covers, one cover shoot).

8. I'm about to launch into another stage in life...grad student! This fall, I'm beginning studies at Rutgers University's School of Library and Information Sciences.

Now comes the hard part...tagging. This meme has made a lot of progress around the blogosphere, so some people I would tag have already posted their eight random facts. I also don't spend nearly as much time reading blogs as I used to do, so coming up with eight is a bit of a challenge. Plus, not everybody goes for memes, either.

So I'll take the same way out as the gang at 10,000 Birds: if you read this, haven't been tagged for "Eight Random Facts," and want to give it a shot, go for it. Just leave a comment on this post with a link to your meme post.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blog.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Frigatebird sp.

On this day in 1926, Mrs. Emlen H. Fisher spotted an odd bird at the beach in Cape May. "The bird hung perfectly motionless facing the wind for fifteen or twenty minutes and did not move an inch in space nor move a feather except to turn his head and look down at the small group of people gathered below," Mrs. Fisher wrote in a letter to Witmer Stone, who published the report in a note in the Auk (Stone 1928). Her account also mentioned a wingspan of at least three feet, a forked tail, and a curved bill. In sum, it added up to a frigatebird (or Man-o'-war-bird, as it was then known). Stone's account in Bird Studies at Old May Cape concludes, possibly a bit regretfully, "The fact that I had been on the beach several times on the day that Mrs. Fisher saw her bird and on every other day for a week or more shows how easily one may miss these rare stragglers to our coast and doubtless many more of this or other species go unrecorded" (Stone 1965).

Of course, Stone had found his own rarity on the Cape May beach the previous day, an Audubon's Shearwater. The frigatebird was believed to be a product of the same storm that had dropped the shearwater in the area, a strong hurricane that blasted through the Bahamas and well inland after making landfall in Florida. Although the shearwater succumbed, the frigatebird was last seen moving southward.

Due to the difficulties of identifying frigatebirds, along with the fact that the expected Magnificent Frigatebird is not the only frigatebird species with North American records, the NJBRC opted for the conservative approach of calling this (and other subsequent records) frigatebird sp. It wasn't until 2005's influx of nine frigatebirds that the documentation for two individuals established that they were Magnificents (Barnes et al. 2006).

Barnes, Scott, Joe Burgiel, Vince Elia, Jennifer Hanson, Laurie Larson, & Paul Lehman. 2006. New Jersey Bird Records Committee - Annual Report 2006. New Jersey Birds 32:66-76. PDF here

Stone, Witmer. 1928. The Man-o'-war-bird (Fregata Magnificens) at Cape May, N. J. Auk 45:367-368. PDF here

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Audubon's Shearwater

On this day in 1926, Witmer Stone was out for a swim at the beach in Cape May when he spotted "a bird that was quite unknown" to him (Stone 1926). His account continues, "Upon swimming out I was able to approach near enough to convince myself that it was a Shearwater but I soon lost sight of it as the sea was choppy and the bird was constantly disappearing in the trough of the waves." The shearwater alternated between flying and sitting on the water "beyond the breakers."

As luck would have it, lifeguards in a boat off the beach picked up a moribund shearwater later on; it went to Dr. T. S. Palmer and his wife, who presented the bird (now dead) to Stone. It turned out to be a female Audubon's Shearwater and the specimen went to the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Stone knew of only one previous NJ report of the species, "...Audubon's vague statement that he had seen them 'off Sany [sic] Hook'" (Stone 1926).

Stone may have been lucky to have a relatively uneventful swim, because the morning he chose for his dip was several days after a hurricane made landfall in Florida (and when another tropical storm was starting its trip up the Atlantic). The unnamed storm, the first of the season, wreaked havoc in the Bahamas before hitting Florida, continued inland as far as Louisiana, then reversed course and wound up at the Great Lakes by 2 August (storm track here).

Storm waifs were found in a number of Eastern states after this storm. South Carolina got White-tailed Tropicbird, Bridled Tern, and Brown Noddy, as well as multiple Sooty Terns and Audubon's Shearwaters (Sprunt 1926, Von S. Dingle 1927, Wayne 1926, Wayne 1927); two Sooty Terns were in North Carolina (Brimley 1926); and a Sooty Tern was in West Virginia (Johnston 1926).

Audubon's Shearwater was a good find indeed, but the storm had one last avian surprise in store for NJ. But that's tomorrow's post.

Anon. 1926. The Nassau Hurricane, July 25-26, 1926. Monthly Weather Review 54:296-297. PDF here
Brimley, H. H. 1926. Sooty Tern in North Carolina. Auk 43:535. PDF here
Johnston, I. H. 1926. Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata) in West Virginia. Auk 43:535-536. PDF here
Sprunt, Alexander, Jr. 1926. The Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata) at Charleston, S. C. Auk 43:535. PDF here
Stone, Witmer. 1926. Audubon's Shearwater at Cape May, N. J. Auk 43:536. PDF here
Von S. Dingle, E. 1927. Sooty Tern (Sterna fuscata) and Bridled Tern (Sterna anaetheta) on the South Carolina Coast. Auk 44:93-94. PDF here
Wayne, Arthur T. 1926. The Sooty Tern and Audubon's Shearwater in South Carolina. Auk 43:534-535. PDF here
Wayne, Arthur T. 1927. Two Birds New to the Fauna of South Carolina. Auk 44:94. PDF here

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Few birds are more frequently misidentified than this species, due to failure to understand its plumages and those of the Herring Gull, and few species are harder to identify positively."

Ludlow Griscom on the Ring-billed Gull in Birds of the New York City Region, published in 1923. Griscom goes on to note the Ring-bill's smaller size in direct comparison with Herring Gull, as well as the difference in leg color between the two species. "No other color character is reliable," he states.

Griscom knew of no northern NJ records later in spring than the Ring-bill found by Charles Urner on 1 May 1922 at Elizabethport, Union County. He also knew of no other reliable north Jersey records apart from Urner's observations from Elizabeth. Although things (including optics and gull ranges) have changed since Griscom's day, more than one World Series of Birding team has come to grief searching for the elusive May Ring-billed Gull.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

On this day in 1872, C. C. Abbott collected a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on Crosswicks Meadow in Mercer County, a few miles below Trenton. Abbott was an all-around naturalist who compiled some of his observations in A Naturalist's Rambles About Home, first published in 1884. Crosswicks Meadow (not far from Trenton Marsh) was one of Abbott's favorite places to visit. The Scissor-tailed Flycatcher specimen was eventually deposited at the Academy of Science in Salem, Massachusetts (Abbott 1887), but it has since been lost.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher has gone on to become one of the most frequently reported rarities in NJ, with 41 accepted records through 2005. Although a quarter of the state's records cover the period from September to December, it is more expected in spring, particularly May. There are no fewer than 20 records for May. Interestingly, the earliest seasonal record is the first one in 1872; there is only one other record for April, a bird that arrived in Cape May 28 April 1990 and remained until 5 May.

Although many NJ Scissor-tail records come from the expected migrant traps like Cape May and Sandy Hook, there are a fair number from inland locations as well. In common with many vagrant flycatchers, most Scissor-tails are one-day wonders (sometimes even five-minute wonders). On the other hand, this conspicuous species should catch the attention of any birder (and many a non-birder) lucky enough to run across it.

Abbott, C. C. 1887. A Naturalist's Rambles About Home. Appleton, New York, NY. 2nd ed.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Hoary Redpoll

On this day in 1960, a Hoary Redpoll appeared in a flock of Common Redpolls that were at a feeder in West Englewood, Bergen County. Frank B. Gill noticed the bird's paleness compared to the other birds in the flock and collected it. The bird was subsequently identified as a Hoary Redpoll. The specimen is now at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (Gill 1961).

Hoary Redpoll is one of the rarer vagrants to New Jersey. This northern species occasionally moves south with irruptions of Common Redpolls, but many Hoary Redpolls do not come as far south as New Jersey. Adding to the difficulty of finding a Hoary Redpoll in NJ are identification issues. Redpolls of both species are variably marked, and sorting out which is which can be an exercise in frustration, even for those with previous redpoll experience (Czaplak 1995).

There are only two other accepted records for NJ; one from Plainfield, Union County, in 1974, and one from Rockaway, Morris County, in 1994 (Hanson 2005).

Czaplak, Dave. 1995. Identifying Common and Hoary Redpolls in Winter. Birding 27:446-457.
Gill, Frank B. 1961. A Hoary Redpoll Specimen for New Jersey. Wilson Bulletin 73:388-389. PDF here

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Barnacle Goose

On this day in 1926, George Hix found a Barnacle Goose at Overpeck Creek in Bergen County. "Over a score" of others saw the goose; on 21 March 1926, the unlucky bird was collected (Cruickshank 1942). For a time, the specimen was thought to be lost, but it has resurfaced in the collection of the US National Museum (Hanson 2005). The bird was thought to be unusually tame, which cast an added measure of doubt on the bird's origin.

Welcome to the contentious world of the Barnacle Goose, the goose that birders love to hate. Although it shows a marked pattern of occurrence similar to what one would expect from genuine vagrant waterfowl, it is also kept in captivity. On the third hand, Eurasian Wigeons and Tufted Ducks are also kept in captivity; the Barnacle Goose happens to be the species that has had the "escape" term stick to it like glue. One reason for this is the existence of a notorious family of Barnacle Geese that were released by a waterfowl collector on White Rock Island in Nova Scotia and then proceeded to turn up in various places in the Northeast as they migrated (including NJ).

It has long been birding conventional wisdom that any birder who counted a Barnacle Goose on his or her list was no better than someone counting known exotics. Now, however, the pendulum seems to be swinging back a bit. Wild goose populations have exploded recently; the Barnacle Goose is but one of several species currently enjoying increased numbers. The winter of 2001-2002 saw a positive "flight" of Barnacles across the Northeast, although NJ got only one record from this influx. The Massachusetts Avian Records Committee (MARC), when considering a record of a bird from this flight, voted to add the species to the state list without qualifiers about origin (Rines 2003).

I could go on and on about Barnacle Geese (and did, in Hanson 2004-2005). The deeper one looks, the more interesting the quirks of conventional wisdom get. Tameness, it turns out, has been used not only to argue against the wild origin of Barnacle Geese, but FOR it as well (Tufts 1986). There is nothing wrong with taking a conservative attitude toward waterfowl origin, but if that is the case, why do we tend to doubt Barnacles but give Eurasian Wigeons a free pass? With little hard knowledge apart from known banded European birds (one of which was shot in Ontario in fall 2005), it is possible for two intelligent people to look at the same evidence and come to opposite conclusions about a Barnacle Goose's origin.

To conclude on a regrettably personal note, the sketch above is of a Barnacle Goose I found at NJ Audubon's Plainsboro Preserve on a day when I was really in the neighborhood to attend to some business before moving to Plainsboro. This goose was one bird in a winter with a good bunch of NJ Barnacle Goose records. I already had a legitimate Barnacle Goose on my life list from southern Finland in 1999. I'd seen another in eastern Pennsylvania in 2000. But I have to admit that such a good find on such an opportune day went on my personal NJ state list. Ever since then, I've had a weakness for Barnacle Geese. But that doesn't mean you have to count them if you don't want to.

Hanson, Jennifer W. 2004-2005. Status of the Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis) in New Jersey. New Jersey Birds 30:86-92.
Rines, Marjorie. 2003. Seventh Annual Report of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee. Bird Observer 31:95-103. link here
Tufts, Robie W. 1986. Birds of Nova Scotia. 3rd edition. Nimbus Publishing/Nova Scotia Museum, Halifax, NS. link here

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"Common" Teal

On this day in 1932, Raymond F. Haulenbeek and Alexander Cairns found a "Common" Teal (aka Eurasian Green-winged Teal) at Boonton Reservoir in Morris County. This appears to be the first state report of the subspecies; at least Stone (1965) indicates as much. This record was published by James L. Edwards in the Auk as part of a note in which he chronicled a series of sightings of "Common" Teal at Troy Meadows in April 1932 (Edwards 1932). An interesting sidelight was the observation of the Troy Meadows "Common" Teal with a Eurasian Wigeon on 30 April 1932.

"Common" Teal seems mainly to be a rare spring migrant in NJ, although there is a record of a bird that stayed in Cape May from 1 December 1994 to 12 May 1995 (Hanson 2005). It should be looked for in flocks of Green-winged Teal; careful scrutiny of drakes may reveal one (or more) with a horizontal white stripe. The state maxima is of three birds at Tuckahoe WMA on 2 April 1982 (Walsh et al. 1999); I and a friend saw two birds at Corbin City WMA (often lumped with Tuckahoe) on 26 March 1994. One of those birds was recorded in the sketch that illustrates this post.

As it happens, a "Common" Teal was found at the pond on Reed's Beach Rd. a little earlier this month (photos from Karl Lukens here). Some birders may disregard "Common" Teal because the AOU considers it a subspecies, but it is well worth looking for these birds.

Edwards, James L. 1932. European Teal (Nettion crecca) in Northern New Jersey. Auk 49:460-461. PDF here

Monday, February 26, 2007

OT: Birds Don't Read Blogs, Either

Left: American Crow on ice just above the Great Falls at Paterson.

There's a birder truism to the effect that birds don't read field guides. It's usually invoked when some rare bird shows up out of range. Well, birds clearly don't read blogs, either. Why, on 3 February of this very year, on this very blog, yours truly said, "...the steady increase in climate warming suggests that [Ivory Gull] is one of the least likely vagrants to visit NJ in the future."

Fast forward to the end of the month and what should turn up near the Tappan Zee Bridge in Piermont, NY? An adult Ivory Gull, of course. (pictures from Phil Jeffrey here) Piermont may be in New York, but it is pretty close to NJ; if an Ivory Gull can reach Piermont, it can certainly continue a little farther and end up someplace like Liberty State Park. Please pass the crow.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Bluebirds and Cardinals

On this day in 1749, Pehr Kalm sat down and wrote a journal entry about some of the local birds around Raccoon, NJ; he chose to write about Eastern Bluebirds and Northern Cardinals. "The Swedes and the English gave the name of 'blue bird' to a very pretty little bird, which was of a fine blue color," he wrote. Kalm cited Mark Catesby's account of the bluebird in Natural History of Carolina and then proceeded to correct Catesby regarding plumage details and habits of the bluebird. Moving on to the cardinal, "...another species of small bird," Kalm said that it was an enemy of bees. He also noted its sweet song and likened it to the song of the Common Nightingale of Europe. Kalm added, "...on account of their agreeable song, they are sent abundantly to London, in cages" (Kalm 1987).

Kalm was a Swedish botanist who was a student of the great Carl Linne (usually known as Linnaeus). He came to North America in 1748 to study "plant species that could be of economic benefit to Sweden and her domain in Finland" (Wacker 2004). Kalm stayed in North America until 1751, then later became a professor at the University of Turku in Finland (at the time, Finland was a Swedish possession). Linnaeus honored Kalm in his naming of the Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia).

Kalm possessed an inveterate curiosity about all manner of things, which makes his journal a treasure trove of information for students of fields far removed from botany. Not only was he a keen observer of birds and other aspects of natural history; he wrote about the local inhabitants, their customs, methods of building...anything. As a result, he left a priceless record of colonial America. As you read some of his entries, you can almost imagine yourself walking by his side as he points out matters of interest in the neighborhood. Although Kalm traveled widely in eastern North America (as far north as Canada), much of his time was spent in the Delaware River valley; the Raccoon of Kalm's day is Swedesboro, Gloucester County, in ours.

The photo that illustrates this post is of a recreation of a Swedish cabin that can be found at Hancock's Bridge in Salem County (best known to birders for Brewer's Blackbirds). This stuga ("room inside") shows the type of basic habitation that the first Swedish settlers used. It was the presence of the Swedish colony that led Kalm to visit what is now NJ.

Kalm, Peter. 1987. Peter Kalm's Travels in America. Dover, New York, NY.
Wacker, Peter O. 2004. "Kalm, Peter (Pehr)." In: Maxine N. Lurie & Marc Mappen, eds. Encyclopedia of New Jersey. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur
On this day in 1895, A. H. Phillips found two Lapland Longspurs in a flock of Snow Buntings at Princeton in Mercer County. Phillips collected one of the longspurs and provided the first confirmed evidence of the species' occurrence in NJ (Babson 1901, Stone 1908).

Unlike many birds with definite first state records, Lapland Longspur is a regularly occurring (albeit uncommon) part of NJ's avifauna, and was probably visiting the state long before the first specimen was taken. The longspurs are found both along the shore and inland, and the best advice for those who would like to add Lapland Longspur to their NJ list is to visit places known to draw flocks of Horned Larks and/or Snow Buntings, both frequent fellow travelers for the longspurs. This translates into barrier island beaches along the coast, inland farm fields at places like Alpha (Warren County), not to mention the gravel parking lot at Spruce Run Reservoir in Hunterdon County. Spruce Run was where I saw my first North American Lapland Longspur a couple of days ago; its (record shot only) photo appears above. More pics at my Flickr stream if you want; just scroll past the Roebling bridge photos.

For those familiar with the Princeton area today (and its general dearth of Snow Buntings, never mind longspurs), there might be some question as to where Phillips was so fortunate to find these birds. The answer may be in Babson's entry on Snow Buntings (or as they were called then, Snowflakes). This states that the winter of 1894-1895 was a good year for Snow Buntings because "several large flocks appeared at intervals during the winter." Babson also notes that none had been seen in the area since this noteworthy winter.

A further note about Phillips; he was a professor at Princeton University who taught Mineralogy but clearly had a strong ornithological avocation. Thanks to this page, I can also report that Phillips is commemorated in a "Faculty Song" at Princeton: "Ha Ha Phillips, he he he / Teaches mineralogy'." Apparently he liked to laugh.

Babson, William Arthur. 1901. The Birds of Princeton, New Jersey, and Vicinity. Bulletin of the Bird Club of Princeton University 1:7-82.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

OT: Bird Drawing

Anyone who has been a birder for a while inevitably develops certain specialties; favorite groups of birds, favorite methods of recording sightings, favorite offshoots of birding... As you can guess from this blog, one of my interests is the history of birds and bird study. Another one is bird art. That's probably unavoidable for someone who has been drawing and doodling since she could hold a writing implement, and who also majored in Art History in college. Bird art ranges from quick sketches made in the field to document sightings to finished artwork in many media by a host of skilled artists.

Even in this day of digiscoping, drawing is an excellent way of observing, documenting and learning birds. Unfortunately, relatively few birders do it. There are various reasons for this, but one is that many of us are taught that art is the province of the talented few. In fact, getting started in field sketching takes one thing: getting started. Talent helps, but just making time and space to practice drawing will take you a long way.

I found this post at Drawing the Motmot via The Birdchaser. It's an approachable recipe for getting started in drawing. This other post at Getting Things Done in Academia expands on the original post, and talks about why drawing is a useful skill for scientists to have. I recommend both posts to anyone who wants to try field sketching.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Few Loose Ends From Yesterday

It never fails: when I start writing a blog post and do some research to fill in the background, I come up with too many intriguing avenues for research, given the time constraints of posting a blog entry on the anniversary of a particular record. Either I need to start writing farther ahead, or I need to continually update past entries. Decisions, decisions...

The research for yesterday's post brought up the following issues, all well worth further investigation:

- the severity of the winter of 1917-1918. Even brief web searches indicate that this was a prodigious winter, not just in North America but in Europe as well (where those fighting World War I also had to contend with it). Wilson (1922) published a note in the Auk on bird changes in Kentucky following this winter, but I'd love to know what was going on in Jersey after that year. Then there is this photo, taken the same day the American Three-toed Woodpecker was seen in West Englewood, showing an Arctic landscape that was, in fact, Evansville, Indiana.

- J. M. Johnson. He may have been one of the first rangers (perhaps "nature educator" is a better term in this case) if this page refers to the same J. M. Johnson whose sister possibly saw the woodpecker. As for Ms. Johnson, puzzling out her identity really requires some serious digging through census records. Was she just a sibling with a bird-crazy brother, or was she a naturalist in her own right?

Finally, the combination of American Three-toed Woodpecker with Red-cockaded Woodpecker on the NJ state list puts the state into select company. Pennsylvania puts both on its hypothetical list only.

Wilson, Gordon. 1922. Bird Changes Caused by the Winter of 1917-1918. Auk 39:270. PDF here

Monday, February 05, 2007

American Three-toed Woodpecker

On this day in 1918, Charles Johnston found an American Three-toed Woodpecker near West Englewood in Bergen County. The bird was a male and was carefully described by Johnston, who had previous experience with the species. A few days later, what was probably the same bird was seen by J. M. Johnson's sister; Johnson was a local birder but his sister remains nameless (at least, in the account of the record found in Griscom 1923).

Griscom noted that the winter of 1918 was "the severest winter on record" and gave plenty of bona fides for the observation and Johnston's abilities. However, he placed the woodpecker in the "Hypothetical" section of Birds of the New York City Region, saying, "...the writer feels that a specimen had better be obtained, before so unlikely a species is definitely recorded from New Jersey." This was a sign of the times; although Griscom was an early proponent of sight records, he believed that some birds were too unusual to let their documented occurrence rest only on a sighting.

Were Griscom alive today, he would still be waiting for that specimen. This 1918 observation is the only accepted record of American Three-toed Woodpecker for NJ, and there have only been a couple of other reports of the species in the state (Halliwell et al. 2000).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Ivory Gull

On this day in 1940, Herbert Cutler found a dead Ivory Gull washed up on the beach at Island Beach in Ocean County. He was accompanied by William Yoder, Jr., Quintin and Evelyn Kramer, Morris Finkel and Jack Herre (Cutler 1940). The bird was an adult; the specimen is now in the collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Cutler's Ivory Gull note appears in a special section of the Auk devoted to unusual bird records stemming from the harsh weather in the winter of 1939-1940. Ivory Gulls were seen in larger numbers than normal in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Taverner 1940) and one made it as far south as Mt. Desert Island in Maine (Sullivan 1940). The NJ bird was the most southerly record up to that time, but it was clearly part of a larger pattern.

Apart from the cold weather, another unusual circumstance contributed to this record. Although the United States had yet to enter World War II in January 1940, German U-boats were patrolling the north Atlantic. As Walters (2004) puts it, "There was the time when German U-Boats were sinking ships off the Jersey Coast, casting oiled seabirds inland, many to their deaths. Right on the spot appeared the 'Dead Birding Clan': Dave [Cutler] and a gang of others (the Kramers, Harry Goldstein, and Herb Cutler). They picked up dozens of dead alcids in several weekends of systematic beach surveys...Herb Cutler found the first dead Ivory Gull ever for New Jersey on one of these weekends."

There have only been two other NJ Ivory Gull records since 1940; one was at Manasquan Inlet from 28 January to 5 February 1955. The other appeared at Lake Como on the North Shore on 10 February 1986, then reappeared at Liberty State Park on 16 February. From this spread of dates, one can conclude that late January and early February is the right season for an Ivory Gull in NJ, but the steady increase in climate warming suggests that this is one of the least likely vagrants to visit NJ in the future.

Cutler, Herbert S. 1940. Ivory Gull in New Jersey. Auk 57:403-404. PDF here
Sullivan, Maurice. 1940. Ivory Gull from Mount Desert Island, Maine. Auk 57:403. PDF here
P. A. Taverner. 1940. Ivory Gulls in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Auk 57:402-403. PDF here
Walters, Chris. 2004. Adventures in Birding: The Dave Cutler Story. Philadelphia Larus 31(1):1, 4-5. PDF here

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Last Word on the Murrelet?

I thought about taking a photo like this today at Sandy Hook, but I was too busy trying to keep my hands warm while on the beach. Dana Beaton gets the credit. Despite the many eyes, there were no murrelet reports today.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Murrelet Linkages

The Long-billed Murrelet was refound at Sandy Hook today, much to the relief of many birders. Although I prefer not to attempt blow-by-blow accounts of current rarities (NJBirds and JerseyBirds do a far better job than I can), I did think it would be worthwhile to compile some murrelet links, particularly since this is such a notable bird for NJ.

Photos of Sandy Hook's latest celebrity bird by:

Sam Galick one, two, three
Jim Gilbert photos

Reference material:

Long-billed Murrelet in Ithaca, NY.

Long-billed Murrelet in Seneca County, OH.

The Long-billed Murrelet that made it all the way to Dawlish in Devon, UK. This feature on Surfbirds has lots of photos and useful links. Other photos by Dave Appleton and Jonathan Wasse.

Long-billed Murrelet id (with particular reference to head pattern) at The Bird Guide.

Long-billed Murrelet account at Ocean Wanderers.

Brief Bibliography:

In the hot-off-the-press department, the December 2006 issue of Birding World contains an account of the Dawlish Long-billed Murrelet, its initial misidentification and the subsequent twitch set off when it was correctly identified. There are great photos as well, of course. Thanks to Gail Mackiernan for the tip.

Friesen, V. L., J. F. Piatt, & A. J. Baker. 1996. Evidence From Cytochrome B Sequences and Allozymes for a 'New' Species of Alcid: The Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix). Condor 98:681-690. PDF here
Maumary, Lionel, & Peter Knaus. 2000. Marbled Murrelet in Switzerland: A Pacific Ocean Auk New to the Western Palearctic. British Birds 93:190-199.
Mlodinow, Steven G. 1997. The Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix) in North America. Birding 29:461-475.
Sealy, Spencer G., Harry R. Carter, W. David Shuford, Kevin D. Powers, & Charles A. Chase III. 1991. Long-distance Vagrancy of the Asiatic Marbled Murrelet in North America, 1979-1989. Western Birds 22:145-156. PDF here
Sibley, David. 1993. An Asiatic Marbled Murrelet in Ontario. Birders Journal 2:276-277.
Thompson, Christopher W., Kevin J. Pullen, Richard E. Johnson, & Eric B. Cummins. 2003. Specimen Record of a Long-billed Murrelet From Eastern Washington, With Notes on Plumage and Morphometric Differences Between Long-billed and Marbled Murrelets. Western Birds 34:157-168. PDF here

This post may be updated in the future with more links, especially if more photos of the Sandy Hook bird are posted.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A Day to Remember

Today will probably go down in the annals of great Jersey birding stories. First it was a Black Guillemot at Sandy Hook; this would've gotten more respect except for the long-staying (in guillemot terms) bird at Barnegat last winter. Then it morphed into a Pigeon Guillemot; this would be an East Coast mega. Finally the word settled on Long-billed Murrelet, a first state record (obligatory disclaimer: if accepted).

Harvey Tomlinson's post on JerseyBirds provides a good discussion of birding "in the heat of battle," when an identification can be more fluid than one would expect. Harvey analyzes which species names were in play and why.

This is on top of a Band-tailed Pigeon (it would be the second state record if accepted) that has outstayed the first state bird by two days now. It (briefly) reduced the list of NJ rarities not seen in Cape May County, but now the murrelet has redressed that balance.

Then there are the continuing Hunterdon County Ash-throated Flycatcher and Western Tanager. If you want a write-up bird, there are plenty to choose from.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

In the Mailbox

This week, the latest issues of New Jersey Birds (NJB) and North American Birds (NAB) arrived. NJB is published by the NJ Audubon Society. It's a benefit of membership, but you have to request it, so pay attention to your renewal form if you would like to subscribe to the print version. There are also plans to post issues on the web going forward.

NJB's fall issue, as always, contains the Annual Report of the NJ Bird Records Committee (NJBRC). The 2006 Annual Report covers records from 2005 and a few that edge over into the beginning of 2006 (not to mention a Franklin's Gull record from 1993). Disclaimer: yours truly is one of the six co-authors on this year's Annual Report. In addition to the Annual Report, the current issue of NJB contains articles on NJ's first state records of Green Violet-Ear and Brown-headed Nuthatch, plus field notes and photos from the spring 2006 season.

NAB is now published by the American Birding Association; it has had a long history under a number of titles and was originally published by the National Audubon Society. When I started subscribing to it, it was American Birds. The current issue also covers the spring 2006 season. One of the highlights of the season was the White-tailed Hawk at Great Swamp NWR; it receives its own SA sidebar in the Hudson-Delaware column (Veit & Paxton 2006) and the photos appear in the Pictorial Highlights section. The main articles are all extralimitals, as far as Jersey birders are concerned: Streaked Shearwater and Lesser Frigatebird in Wyoming, Kirtland's Warbler in Cuba and Striated Heron in the Greater Antilles.

Veit, Richard R., & Robert O. Paxton. 2006. Spring Migration, Hudson-Delaware Region. North American Birds 60:353-357.