Thursday, October 21, 2010

Great Cormorant

On this day in 1929, Joseph Harrison "secured" an immature Great Cormorant near Salem, NJ. The specimen made its way to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, and to Witmer Stone, who published a note about it in the Auk. The bird that Harrison collected was one of two that he saw.

Subsequently, Charles Urner published a note in the Auk regarding sight reports of Great Cormorants in the Barnegat Bay area. Although some cormorants in the area were strongly suspected to be Great Cormorants (or European Cormorants, as they were called at that time), it wasn't until 23 February 1931 that a Barnegat Bay cormorant was seen well enough to for the field marks for Great Cormorant to be made out. As Urner concluded his note: "Since identification of single cormorants in the field is so difficult unless the bird is in, or approaching, breeding plumage, or is seen very near at hand, this species is probably of more regular occurrence than the published records indicate (Urner 1932)."

Stone, Witmer. 1932. The European Cormorant in New Jersey. Auk 49:77. PDF here
Urner, Charles A. 1932. The European Cormorant in New Jersey. Auk 49:341-342. PDF here

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Moth and Me #13

Welcome to the thirteenth edition of The Moth and Me blog carnival. Although thirteen is widely regarded as an unlucky number, there are those who go against the grain. None of the folks who submitted posts seemed to be scared off by triskaidekaphobia, and for that I thank them.

The number thirteen is often associated with the supernatural. Since many moths are creatures of the night and their life histories can be downright bizarre, it doesn't take much imagination to think of some of these posts as part of a collection of spooky stories.

A happenstance meeting with a moth in London briefly reminds Martin of Martin's Moths of Gothic architecture and a sinister murder case. Chris of The Skeptical Moth tells a ghost story, albeit a scientific one (it's about a previously undiscovered ghost moth). There are many other fantastical creatures in the annals of the weird, but even in the times of the ancients, sphinxes can't have been as common as they seem to be now: this carnival includes sphinx moth (or hawk moth, if you prefer) reports from Mark at Skev's B.L.O.G. in Leicestershire, UK, and Matthew of SEE TRAIL in Texas, USA. There's even a sphinx moth mimic (an Apatelodes) from Missouri, USA (a first state record for Shelly at MObugs).

Several posts deal with caterpillars and their transformation from crawling things to creatures of the air. Even when the transformation goes well (as it does in this post from Elaine at Memorizing Nature), it's somewhat uncanny. When Tim at The Backyard Arthropod Project attempts to rear a found caterpillar, however, he soon has a totally unexpected creature on his hands (zombie caterpillars, anyone?). Since caterpillar's life is a hard one, some species defend themselves with chemical warfare; in this post, Kristen at Tales from the Butterfly Garden explains why you want to think twice before touching fuzzy-looking caterpillars.

Adult moths have to worry about predators, too, of course. Sometimes death comes from the air, as it did for this Edwards' Glassy-wing Moth found by Katie at Nature ID; sometimes it comes from the ground, as it did for an Australian moth found by Denis at The Nature of Robertson.

Despite the number, though, this carnival isn't really a collection of supernatural stories. That ghost story, for example, is really about doing science. Another post about doing science (and the intimate relationship between moths and plants) is this one, where Chris at Coyote Crossing interviews researcher Jeremy Yoder about his work with yucca moths.

A more informal way of doing science is to set out a moth trap in one's backyard and see what happens. This is more common in the UK than in North America at the moment; Charlie at 10,000 Birds has been posting mothy updates like this one about June moths, while Mike at Norfolk Wildlife shows a tiny but well-camouflaged moth.

Backyard mothing has yet to become as popular in North America as it is in the UK, but we do have bioblitzes or biothons here. Seabrooke at The Marvelous in Nature helps out with a biothon and discovers that moths can add good numbers to a biothon total.

Even without a ongoing moth-netting project, some moths are eye-catching enough to stop observant people in their tracks. Some are colorful, like these from John at A D.C. Birding Blog (currently located in New Jersey). Some have flashy spots, like this one found by Natalie at dreamfalcon. Pink is a color that gets people's attention, as I've found when posting photos of Rosy Maple Moths on Flickr, so it's no wonder this little pink moth got the attention of Amber at Birder's Lounge.

And finally, if you're like me, you are fascinated by moth nomenclature (well, ok, most people aren't like me, but bear with me here). Any group of critters with common names like The Small Engrailed, Abrupt Brother, The Neighbor, Dejected Underwing, Wanton Pinion and Disparaged Arches (to name but a few) offers plenty of prospects for wordplay, if that's your game. The Voice of the Turtle's lavenderbay considers various things that have been named for Virginia, including the Virginia Ctenucha moth.

With that, The Moth and Me #13 comes to a close. I don't believe there's a host for August yet, so drop Seabrooke a line at canadianowlet AT if you are interested. Thanks to everyone for their posts and submissions this month. Now get out there and look for some more moths!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Atlantic City Bird Names

A. C. From Brig
Originally uploaded by ammodramus88
Some more old Jersey bird names from Trumbull's Names and Portraits of Birds Which Interest Gunners.... These are from Atlantic City which, given that Trumbull's book was published in 1888, looked a little different than it does today.

Big Yellow-legged Plover - Greater Yellowlegs
Black-breast - Dunlin
Blaten Duck - Gadwall
Bog Snipe - Wilson's Snipe
Brant-bird - Dunlin
Bull-head - Black-bellied Plover
Calico-back - Ruddy Turnstone
Cock-robin - Hooded Merganser
Cock-robin Duck - Hooded Merganser
Cub-head - Common Goldeneye
Granny - Long-tailed Duck
Gray-back - Short-billed Dowitcher
Hay-bird - Pectoral Sandpiper
Hollow-head - Black-bellied Plover
Horse-foot Marlin - Whimbrel
Long-neck - Northern Pintail
Mud-hen - Clapper Rail
Old Granny - Long-tailed Duck
Ring-tailed Marlin - Hudsonian Godwit
Sleepy Broad-bill - Ruddy Duck
Small Yellow-legged Plover - Lesser Yellowlegs
Spoon-bill - Northern Shoveller
Sprig-tail - Northern Pintail
Straight-billed Curlew - Marbled Godwit
Telltale - Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs
Triddler - Pectoral Sandpiper
Winter Snipe - Dunlin

Previously in this series:

Jersey Game Bird Names 1
Barnegat Bird Names
Tuckerton Bird Names
Cape May City Bird Names

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Concrete Ship

Great Cormorant
Originally uploaded by ammodramus88
On this day in 1926, a storm hit Cape May. A concrete ship hulk, which had been intended to find its final harbor as part of a ferry dock, broke away from its moorings in the storm and ran aground not far off Sunset Beach. The ship could not be salvaged afterward and has been crumbling into the sea ever since.

Though the idea of a concrete ship seems to defy the laws of physics, a number of these vessels were built during World War I and II. The S. S. Atlantus was seaworthy enough to bring troops home from Europe and transport coal in New England after she left her home port of Brunswick, Georgia, in December 1918. She was retired in 1920, only to be resurrected by the prospect of a ferry service connecting Cape May with Delaware. Then the storm put paid to that notion. It wasn't until 1964 that Cape May-Lewes ferry service finally became a reality.

After the S. S. Atlantus ran aground, she became a curiosity for tourists and a landmark for birders. The concrete ship took her place among the birding topography of Cape May along with the bunker, the magnesite plant, and the beanery. She became known as a good place for a seawatch, and a good spot for Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, or staging migrant Red-throated Loons (in the appropriate season). Unfortunately, she continues to decay into the bay; I guess it's a mark of the time that I've spent birding that the concrete ship is obviously reduced from what she was when I first met her.

For lots more about concrete ships in general, see the concrete ships site. The S. S. Atlantus is also given her own page there. For the stop-and-go history of ferry service between Cape May and Delaware, see the history page on the official Cape May-Lewes ferry site.

Rest in peace, S. S. Atlantus. We'll miss you when you're gone.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

For Ada Lovelace Day: Thank You, Claudia Wilds

Ada Lovelace Day is a day for bloggers to celebrate women in science and technology. I'm not sure if this post will fall exactly within the parameters of what was intended for this day, but I would like to take the opportunity to honor the memory of one of my birding role models, the late Claudia Wilds.

I first ran across Wilds' name while reading Jack Connor's guide for would-be intermediate birders, The Complete Birder. This book delved deeper into the identification of complicated groups such as warblers, shorebirds, terns and gulls than many field guides of the time went (The Complete Birder was originally published in 1988). Connor quoted identification criteria in a conversational style; I subsequently found out that he was citing articles in the American Birding Association's journal Birding, but at the time I first read (and reread and reread) his book, I had no idea that the ABA even existed. I just thought Connor knew some birders, and that Claudia Wilds sure knew a lot about shorebirds.

I had already caught the shorebird bug by the time I first read The Complete Birder. The identification of birds (and especially difficult groups such as shorebirds or gulls) was an irresistible intellectual challenge. Wilds' work offered the tools to get to grips with these challenges. Once I found ABA and became a member, and then bought up all the back issues of Birding I could get, I discovered Wilds' own articles, and her critiques of other shorebird references.

In the meantime, as a birder in the mid-Atlantic, I had also found my way to Bombay Hook NWR and other Delaware sites. Lo and behold, Wilds had also written a bird-finding guide to the DC area (which included Delaware). Not only did it cover birds, it also dealt with practical matters such as Delaware speed traps.

Eventually, I wrote a few articles for Birding myself, on old bird books. At that point, Wilds was Associate Editor of Birding, and I have at least one manuscript marked up by her (as well as Paul Lehman, Birding's editor at the time).

It wasn't until Wilds' untimely death from cancer in 1997 that I found out that she had had an illustrious career as a linguist with the U. S. State Department before she came to birding (if you Google her name, you will find references from both chapters of her life). I never met her in person, but she was and continues to be an inspiration to me.

Oh, and the image for this post? A run of Western Birds (originally California Birds) showed up in the Buteo Books catalog in the late 90s, so I snapped it up (those being the days when money was no object when it came to building my birding reference library). Look closely at the upper right-hand corner of that cover. It says "Wilds."

An incomplete list of further reading:

Claudia Wilds: Finding Birds in the National Capital Area. Smithsonian Institution Press.
Claudia Wilds: Separating the Yellowlegs. Birding 14:172-178
Claudia Wilds and David Czaplak: Yellow-legged Gulls in North America. Wilson Bulletin 106:344-356 (PDF)

Paul Lehman: A Tribute to Claudia Wilds (1931-1997) Birding 29:358-360

Monday, March 22, 2010

Mothy Monday 6: Spring!

After a winter full of snowbanks, and a late winter with way too much rain, there was a spell of fine sunny warm weather last week. That was all the early-season moths needed. My first moth of the season may have been a Fall Cankerworm Moth (Alsophila pometaria) but the photos weren't quite good enough to clinch it. Soon afterward, I saw the first Spring Cankerworm Moth (Paleacrita vernata) of the season, a browner individual than the gray ones I've seen in past years.

Yesterday I decided to visit Plainsboro Preserve on the off chance some moths were perched on the building (they are attracted from the surrounding area by the building's lights). I wasn't expecting much, but was delighted to find several The Half-wings (Phigalia titea), more Spring Cankerworm Moths, as well as various unidentified Noctuids and others. Spring has officially sprung, as far as the moths are concerned.

In other mothiness around the web, the most recent The Moth and Me blog carnival has been posted at the Xenogere blog. Some female moths are wingless, and a nice video clip of such a female is part of the carnival (not to mention a whimsical conversation with her, but that's another story). I've never seen one of these wingless moths, so it was a great opportunity to see what they look like in real life.

Also, Seabrooke Leckie at The Marvelous in Nature has an interesting post about creating range maps for the upcoming Peterson series field guide to moths, and the dilemma of what to do when one doesn't have a lot of data from which to generate a range map.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bird Documentation in the Digital Age: A Bird in the Book

The practice of birding is currently undergoing major changes in response to technological changes. These changes include both the introduction of new types of technology as well as new modes of using existing technologies. These changes can be disorienting; while some birders are happy to adopt any new gadget that comes along, others see no reason to change their proven ways of doing things. Somewhere between the "social media will save the world" and "social media is a faddish waste of time" schools lies the truth, and it's impossible for us to totally grasp that truth, caught up in the historical moment of change as we are. What we can do is look back at a previous world-changing technological shift in the practice of birding: the shift from collecting birds with guns to looking at birds with binoculars. The tried-and-true ways we may now want to keep were once themselves novel and suspect to the old school.

There are several good histories of the time period covered by this change (Barrow [1998] is more academic, while Weidensaul [2007] is aimed at a general audience), but the way I'm going to tackle this topic is by looking at how this technological shift altered the language of bird descriptions found in books intended to guide bird students. These identification guides set forth the basic criteria by which a bird student could determine the identity of a bird. Although the technology by which observations were made changed (shotgun vs. binoculars), the technology that helped bird students understand what they were observing (the printed book) did not. What did change in these guides was the graphic presentation of the information and the language used to describe the identification criteria for birds.

Enough generalities, let's start by comparing a couple of descriptions of the same species, from Shriner (1896) and Peterson (1980). Shriner goes first:

"Length, twelve and a half inches; extent, twenty inches; general color above, blue slate; feathers of the head long and pointed, forming a conspicuous crest, bluish slate, centered with black; the inner tail feathers have an irregular black stripe down the middle, the rest are black, with slaty blue edges, all are more or less spotted with white; long wing feathers, black, with the basal portion white and a few white spots on some of the outer webs; color of under surface of the body, white, with a broad slaty blue band across the breast, while the sides of the body are slaty with white bars; the white of the throat extends around on the back of the neck, forming a more or less complete collar, and there is a white spot in front of the eye and another just below it; some individuals have white dots on the upper surface of the wings, and in certain plumages the slaty breast band is suffused with rusty; the bill is two inches long, strong, sharp-pointed, and black, excepting near the base of the lower part of the tip, where it is of a horn color; the wings are marked with small specks of white; legs, extremely short, of a dirty yellow color, above the knee bare of feathers for half an inch; the two exterior toes are united together for nearly their whole length; claws, stout and black. The female has a reddish brown band across the under side of the body below the slaty breast band, while the sides of the body are also of this color." Paragraphs on nesting habits (including description of the eggs), distribution, and diet ("exclusively fish") follow.

Now here's Peterson:

"Hovering on rapidly beating wings in readiness for the plunge, or flying with uneven wingbeats (as if changing gear), rattling as it goes, the Kingfisher is easily recognized. Perched, it is big-headed and big-billed, larger than a Robin, blue-gray above, with a ragged bushy crest and a broad gray breastband. The female has an additional rusty breastband." Single sentences on Voice, Range, a reference to the eastern range map, and Habitat follow.

There are obvious differences in length between these two descriptions. Shriner's description includes more details than Peterson's, first giving measurements, then plumage colors in detail, followed by structural details such as the bill and feet. Nowhere is behavior mentioned (there is no reference to "hovering" in his discussion). This description is clearly intended for a bird student with the bird in hand and enough leisure to note fine points such as the black centers to the head feathers and white spots on the outer webs of the flight feathers. The description in its list-like structure portrays the bird as a collection of parts that are given equal weight.

Peterson, by contrast, writes of the bird in motion, describing its feeding and flight behavior. The only color notes are the general "blue-gray above," "broad gray breastband" and description of the female's rusty breastband. On one hand, there's no need for Peterson to describe the bird in further color detail since a color plate of both male and female kingfishers is on the page facing the text (Shriner has a black and white photo of a taxidermist's mount of several kingfishers). Even so, the emphasis is on what the bird is likely to be doing when a bird student finds it rather than what it looks like. Rather than listing the structural features as independent items, as Shriner does, Peterson unites them in the succinct phrase, "big-headed and big-billed," pulling the big picture out of the details. The details that Peterson uses are chosen carefully, with the most prominent ones highlighted and others discarded from the description entirely.

Two different descriptions of the same species are, of course, a very small study sample, but I suspect a larger study would arrive at similar findings.

Bird books from the transitional period between shotguns and bins (think the 1920s-1930s) tend to try to cover both bases. Forbush (1925-1929) included both descriptions and field marks. Bagg and Eliot (1937) listed details of sight observations that today we would pass off without discussion, but that still did not satisfy people like Ludlow Griscom (Davis 1994). Stone (1964) expressed concern about sight records and their reliability, but also had this to say:

"No descriptions of the birds are presented as everyone interested in bird study today possesses one or more manuals for identification. There are, however, many comments on the appearance of birds in the field, of the deceptive effect of light and shadow upon coloration and the relative value of field characters. Even these are perhaps unnecessary in view of the appearance, after most of the 'studies' had been written, of Roger Peterson's admirable 'Field Guide to the Birds,' but so intimately are they associated with other parts of the text that it seemed best to allow them to stand."

We will return to description as a basic part of bird documentation later in this series, but this is its birthplace: when specimens were not always available but records of noteworthy observations needed to be kept.

In the next post in this series, we will return the present and look at the falling cost of bird photography.

Bagg, Aaron Clark, & Samuel Atkins Eliot, Jr. 1937. Birds of the Connecticut Valley in Massachusetts. Hampshire Bookshop, Northampton, MA.
Barrow, Mark, Jr. 1998. A Passion for Birds: American Ornithology After Audubon. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
Davis, William E., Jr. 1994. Dean of the Birdwatchers: A Biography of Ludow Griscom. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
Forbush, Edward Howe. 1925-1929. Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Norwood, MA.
Peterson, Roger Tory. 1980. A Field Guide to the Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA.
Shriner, Charles A. 1896. The Birds of New Jersey. Fish & Game Commission of the State of New Jersey, [Patterson, NJ].
Weidensaul, Scott. 2007. Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding. Harcourt, Orlando, FL.

Previously in this series: