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

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