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When we think of history, most of us think of books, historical documents and other text-based objects.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