Monday, September 29, 2008

Western Kingbird

On this day in 1894, A. H. Phillips found a Western Kingbird (in that day, an Arkansas Kingbird) in Princeton, Mercer County, and took it as a specimen. This was just the first recorded instance of what has become an expected fall vagrant in NJ: so expected, in fact, that it has never been a Review List species.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Grail Bird Book

Note: There is no Ivory-billed Woodpecker content in this post. If you're looking for a grail bird, please move along, there's nothing to see here. This post is about bird books.

Some of the happiest hours of my life have been spent in used bookstores. There's nothing better than poring over titles and wandering between bookcases, down aisles almost too narrow to travel because of the need to make room for even more books (every bibliophile knows that you can never have too many bookcases). The thrill of the hunt extends equally to the prospect of scoring a great bargain and to scoring a book that you've always wanted (and perhaps have never even seen). Why, that book might be on the very next shelf you check!

Fast forward to Google Book Search.

Suddenly, a huge array of books are at your virtual fingertips. You can search, or even download the entire text of some public-domain books as PDF files. You can create your own virtual library, with no need to jam yet another set of bookcases into your already crowded living space (let's put it this way, when I have my annual fireplace inspection, even the chimney sweeps comment on all my books). It would seem like a wonderful thing...

As usual, wonderful things often aren't quite as simple as they appear at first blush. There's been a lot of controversy and even litigation over Google's Book Search; you can find all that on your own if you don't know about it already.

Getting back to the point, this blog's focus is NJ birding history. Early works concerning the birds of NJ (or, indeed, any state) are often difficult to find and command a certain price if you can find them. The sad fact is that old bird books are valuable both as objects to a book collector, and as sources of information to birders. That drives the prices up, and none of us have as much money as we would like to build our own reference libraries (even without the prospect of a total collapse of the financial system...I'll be the one towing a little red wagon with a stack of bird books as I stand in the bread line!).

William Turnbull's The Birds of East Pennsylvania and New Jersey was singled out by Witmer Stone in Bird Studies at Old Cape May as the first really reliable list of NJ birds. As a result, it was immediately added to my list of grail books. However, it's scarce, having only been printed in two editions totalling 200 copies in 1869. When I stumbled across its PDF version in Google Book Search (linked to in the sidebar), I was overjoyed. As a birder, I wanted the information more than the object. This seemed like a perfect solution for me to access the information in the book without having to shell out the big bucks for an actual copy, or find an institution holding a copy. Life was good.

As I paged through the PDF, I started finding problems. The first tip-off should've been that the PDF was 105 pages long, whereas the last numbered page was 65; even allowing for the front matter, there was bound to be a discrepancy. Then there were all the blank pages, or worse, the pages with a random chunk of text and lots of white space. This was not a document you could read through easily. As I looked at it, I got more and more perplexed.

Last weekend found me in the New Jersey Room of Rutgers University's Special Collections (to be found in the basement of Alexander Library on the New Brunswick College Avenue campus). I was there sussing out the collection for classwork, but also for personal research interests such as genealogy and birds. They had two different copies of Turnbull's book on the shelf, one with its own special handmade archival case. I looked at the copy that did not have to be disinterred from the case, and discovered that the blank places in the PDF often corresponded to illustrations in the original. I also found that the illustrations (as was typical for books of that era) were covered by pages of tissue. Now the PDF made more sense, if the illustrations were omitted and the tissue pages were scanned like pages with type on them (or if they sometimes obscured pages with type during the scanning process).

I was lucky to find a real copy of Turnbull's book to "ground-truth" Google's PDF. I'm also lucky to have access to a good academic library as a current grad student (though any Rutgers alum can also have such privileges, plus the Special Collections are available to outside researchers). Many people would not have these advantages.

Bottom line: Google Book Search can be a good thing to improve access to old, scarce books (and I'll certainly be using it myself), but in the end, you may still be better off with the actual book.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

American White Pelican

On this day in 1943, Fletcher Street found an American White Pelican in Beverly, Burlington County. To quote the report in Cassinia, "The bird was in perfect health and able to fly. The Philadelphia Zoo was called and stated that no birds had escaped" (Ross 1944).

The statement in Cassinia that it was the first record of the species in eighty years leads to an interesting paper chase. The statement appears to refer to a report from C. C. Abbott of three pelicans that he saw at Sandy Hook in February 1864. Stone (1965) mentions the report without other comment under the species, while in the bibliography he says, "...Dr. Abbott has recorded many species as breeders in the state which occur only as migrants. In later publications...he endeavors to substantiate some of these statements but presents no satisfactory data while he corrects or contradicts other statements." Griscom (1923) didn't mince words, stating, "Dr. C. C. Abbott claimed to have seen three of these birds flying off Sandy Hook in February 1864, but his observations are known to have been so unreliable that this cannot be accepted as a definite record. The date renders the suspicion unavoidable that the birds were Gannets." Fables (1955) concluded, "Old records [of the species] seem worthless."

Luckily for present-day birders, American White Pelican has since established a less checkered history in the state. Late summer has become the typical time of year to check for the (now expected) pelican at Brigantine NWR, though the last time I was there turned out to be a lesson in how inconspicuous a big white bird can be as it loafs in the impoundments.

An interesting side note to the original record is this passage on life (or rather, birding) during wartime: "War conditions naturally have continued to restrict the activities of the Club. The absence of some thirty younger members who are serving in the armed forces, the exclusion of observers from some coastal and other areas, and restrictions on the use of binoculars have been factors which cut deeply into the number of records reported" (Ross 1944).

Ross, C. Chandler, ed. 1944. Field notes for the 1942-1943 season: October 1, 1942 to September 30, 1943. Cassinia 33:31-34.

Monday, September 22, 2008


So, what exactly counts as physical evidence when reporting a bird sighting? The dead bird itself (aka, a specimen) is an obvious choice, but does any other form of what we often call "physical evidence" have a similar degree of "reality"? That is the question that Rick Wright takes up in a recent post from Aimophila Adventures. I've got to say that an apprentice librarian such as myself ought to be able to come up with some trenchant arguments on this question, but unfortunately it usually takes me a while to come up with my trenchant arguments. So, in the meantime, I'll refer you to the original post.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Great Hurricane of 1938

Hurricane 1938
Originally uploaded by UncoveringWestport
On this day in 1938, an unnamed storm blasted through the northeast without warning. In retrospect, it became known as the Great Hurricane of 1938, or the Long Island Express. Over 600 people died because of the storm, and it caused massive damage. It's become routine in this area (i.e., the NJ-tristate-midAtlantic area) to say, "We're overdue for a big storm," but if you read Everett S. Allen's A Wind to Shake the World, and look at the wake of recent hurricanes such as Ike (never mind Katrina), you'll probably wind up begging providence not to send one up this way. At least, I do. On one hand, we have much better advance warning systems in place today. On the other hand, I'm sure many more people live in the places ravaged by the 1938 hurricane today than did then.

When I realized that we were going to see the 70th anniversary of the 1938 storm this year, I started poking around in search of NJ bird records that might be related to it. I didn't have much luck; there were fewer observers then and the storm didn't ramp up to full intensity until it got north of NJ. What storm-related records there were tended to come from other states. The Auk had a good roundup of them (Allen et al. 1939).

But, as is often the case, NJ had a special wrinkle to add to the story. Well after the hurricane had passed and was wreaking havoc on New England, a series of huge waves came ashore in coastal NJ. Although it would seem that these waves were likely associated with the hurricane, it has also been hypothesized that the waves were actually tsunamis. Check out NOAA's page on Tidal Waves and Other Extreme Waves for more information.

The photo that illustrates this post comes from the Westport Historical Society in Westport, Massachusetts, which has posted a collection of hurricane photos on Flickr. An evocative post about the storm and its memory long after the fact comes from

Allen, Glover M. 1939. Hurricane aftermath. Auk 176-179. PDF here

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In the Mailbox: New Jersey Birds Summer 2008

Yesterday I got the latest issue of New Jersey Birds in the mail. This issue features an article on the first state record of Lesser Nighthawk by Michael O'Brien, as well as a couple of notes by yours truly (Barnacle Goose added to the full State List, Cave Swallow dropped from the Review List).

I'm not writing this post to toot my own horn, though. If you belong to NJ Audubon, you can receive New Jersey Birds as part of your membership at no extra charge. You have to ask for it, though, and it's easy to overlook on your membership renewal form. I'm not sure that there is any organized way to sign up for NJB when becoming a new member, though I would be more than happy to be corrected and hear otherwise. Please comment, if so.

The articles in NJB usually deal with significant avian events such as first state records, or in another example, NJ's first Royal Tern nesting colony (that article was in the spring issue). NJBRC business is also published in the journal; the fall issue always contains the NJBRC Annual Report, along with color photos of some of the rarities that were voted on during the circulation year.

The real meat of NJB (or RNJB to us old-timers, since the journal's name used to be Records of New Jersey Birds) is the sighting reports. NJ is divided into five regions (which are also used in Boyle's A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jersey), each of which has a regional compiler (here's the current list of compilers). You can also look at NJB issues back to fall 2006 as PDFs on this page, though there are many years of previous issues that have not been digitized (hint: snap them up if you stumble across them).

Although we are in a transitional time when it comes to the technology of sharing bird sightings (eBird, anyone?), the framework of regional compilers found in NJ and other states (and upon which North American Birds is also built) is the traditional means for reporting sightings of interest. Looking at past issues of NJB can give you an idea of what observations are particularly interesting in terms of the state's historical record (and no, Review List species are not the only birds of interest). It's certainly easy to send an e-mail to JerseyBirds or post your photos on Flickr, but you'll make compilers' jobs a little easier if you send your observations directly to them as well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jersey Game Bird Names 1

In 1888, Gurdon Trumbull wrote a book called Names and Portraits of Birds Which Interest Gunners with Descriptions in Language Understanded of the People. Harper and Brothers published it, and I found a copy of it in a Maine used bookstore years ago for $25, but now you can find it on Google Books. How times change. The photo that illustrates this post is the gilt American Woodcock that adorns the cover of my copy.

According to French (1878), Trumbull was, "The finest fish-painter of America..." This was intended as a compliment, I should add. French went on to lament, "Unfortunately for the art, Mr. Trumbull's circumstances have been such that he has never been urged beyond the dictates of his fancy to follow a profession. Few of his pictures have come before the public: indeed, he has painted but very little."

Leaving aside the question of whether Gurdon Trumbull is America's great neglected fish-painter, I instead turn to his book of game bird names. Trumbull chronicled these names up and down the eastern seaboard, down to specific towns in many cases. He also cited nomenclature in places further afield, such as the British Isles (can you beat the name of "coal-and-candlelight" for Long-tailed Duck, formerly Oldsquaw? I assume this was was another example of onomatopoeia as given in the more commonly seen rendition of these ducks' calls as "owl omelet.") Trumbull worked in an era when regional names for animals were very much the norm. Think about that the next time you look at your AOU Check-list or your ABA list. In any case, Trumbull's book of game bird names is a precious linguistic legacy.

Future posts in this series will deal with specific NJ towns. Even in such a small state, where the towns in question might not be so far distant from each other, there were frequently striking differences in nomenclature. In the meantime, here are the names that Trumbull gave for the state as a whole, and of the "Jersey coast" as a smaller subset of it:

New Jersey
Black Sea-duck - Surf Scoter
Butter-box - Bufflehead
Horse-foot Snipe - Ruddy Turnstone
Pond Broad-bill - Lesser Scaup
Pond Saw-bill - Hooded Merganser
Rail-bird - Sora
Red-back - Dunlin
Widgeon - American Wigeon

Jersey coast
Fresh-water Mud-hen - Virginia Rail
Old Wife - Long-tailed Duck
Red Goose - Snow Goose

French, Harry Willard. 1878. Art and Artists in Connecticut. Lee & Shepard, Boston, MA. Google Books link
Trumbull, Gurdon. 1888. Names and Portraits of Birds Which Interest Gunners with Descriptions in Language Understanded of the People. Harper & Brothers, New York, NY. Google Books link

Friday, September 05, 2008

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper
Originally uploaded by ammodramus88
On this day in 1898, David McCadden collected a Baird's Sandpiper at Stone Harbor in Cape May County (Stone 1908).

It might indicate the relative rarity of this fall migrant through NJ that, when Stone compiled his list of NJ birds ten years after that first Baird's was collected, it was still the only state record. If there had been a Review List then, Baird's Sandpiper probably would've been on it. The state maxima was ten birds at Brigantine NWR on 8 September 1992 (Walsh et al. 1999).

The bird illustrating this post was on the Cumberland County end of Johnson Sod Farm on 1 September 2007.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Weather: Hanna

Short-billed Dowitcher
Over the weekend, Tropical Storm (currently) Hanna will be tracking through our area. Though the exact track is yet to be seen, Hanna has the potential to be a "bird storm" here in NJ. There are currently discussions about Hanna's birding potential on JerseyBirds and MDOsprey, at least; I'm sure others are happening on other states' lists as well. Just to make things more interesting, Hanna is being followed by Hurricane Ike (already Category 4, yikes!) and Tropical Storm Josephine.

NJ bird storms tend to track to the west of the Delaware River (but not always). Here are tracks of some past NJ bird storms courtesy of the UNISYS historical hurricane data site:

Connie (1955)
Donna (1960)
David (1979)
Bertha (1996)
Floyd (1999)
Isabel (2003)
Ernesto (2006)

Mention "hurricane" and "birds" in the same breath, and one probably thinks of tropical species like Sooty and Bridled terns. But the (blurry) photo that accompanies this post is of a Short-billed Dowitcher I found in a local farm field the day after Ernesto passed in 2006 (not long after I'd gotten my brand-new Canon A620 digital camera, not coincidentally). That puddle also hosted Semipalmated Sandpiper, Wilson's Snipe and Solitary Sandpiper. I probably would've found something really special if I'd checked that puddle during the height of the storm the day before. But, the point I'm trying to make is that while the rarities brought by a passing hurricane may be nice, the grounded migrants may provide equally good birding.

When I was chatting with my hurricane guru Rob Hilton last night, he mentioned Weather Underground's section on tropical weather. This site has such wonderful toys as a display of multiple models for a storm, and historic storm tracks that are (in the case of this one for Hanna) "1851-2006 tracks of all September tropical storms passing within 200 miles of Tropical Storm Hanna." Plus much more. It's a great resource for birders intrigued by weather (which is probably every birder who has a hurricane with the potential to dump good birds on them).

Good birding all, and let's be careful out there.