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