Portrait of A White-throated Sparrow

Zonotrichia albicollis.With some seeds still a-bill. These leaf-kicking sparrows should be around all winter, their “oh-sweet-canada” or, for patriots, “oh-sam-peabody” call echoing through the bare woods. This is one of the tan-striped forms. The white-striped forms have a bold white supercillium (eyebrow).(If you strictly translated this bird’s binomial, you’d get “white-banded thrush,” but whatever.)

Raptor Wednesday

This Red-tailed Hawk in Green-Wood picked up a songbird and took into a pine to pluck. The prey was tiny, possibly a kinglet, hardly seemed worth the effort, and yet…In the top picture, you can see some feathers blowing off to the right. A clump came down to me.Same area, earlier. There were two, sometimes three RTs overhead at one point.

These big Buteos are not renown as bird-hunters, but they can mix songbirds as well as pigeons in with their more typical mammalian prey. Flexibility in diet must be one key to their adaptability to human environments.

Winter Wrens

When last we saw a Winter Wren in these pages, it was dead and being devoured by a Tufted Titmouse. But I’m sure you didn’t think I’d leave it at that. Here are two Troglodytes hiemalis foraging in proximity. These things are tiny: 0.3 – 0.4 oz (8-12 grams).Insect-eaters, mostly, but they’ll also scarf up juniper and other berries in season.Another day, very near the above location in Green-Wood.Another day, some distance away. There were two here as well. The upturned tail is characteristic.Once lumped with the Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), North American populations were split away into two species. The Pacific Wren is T. pacifius. On the 2010 split, from the 51st Supplement to the AOU Checklist of North American birds: “Formerly included in T. troglodytes (Linnaeus 1758)[Eurasian Wren], but here considered specifically distinct on the basis of differences in vocalizations (Kroodsma 1980, Hejl et al. 2002) and mitochondrial DNA (Drovetski et al. 2004). Formerly considered conspecific with T. hiemalis but separated on the basis of the absence of free interbreeding and maintenance of genetic integrity in their contact zone (Toews and Irwin 2008).”

In 2016, the American Ornithologists’ Union changed its own name on merging with the Cooper Ornithological Society and is now the American Ornithological Society (AOS).

Mushroom Monday

These long-format (16:9 aspect ratio) images look better on the big screen, so click on them once to expand.
Usually I shoot 3:2,the old 35mm film standard; sometimes I crop these down for detail. I’m sure you’ll see some 1:1 images around here soon (sounds just right for a woodchuck portrait).Meanwhile, more stinkhorns! This time Phallus impudicus.They — ok, it was her niece — say Darwin’s daughter Etty would edit these out of the garden, for some reason…

Something completely different, although perhaps not completely different:

“As with the societies we live in, the planet we have inherited from our ancestors, and the one we are making now, is a social construct, shaped physically and culturally by the perceptions, values, aspirations, tools, and institutions of societies past and present. These social structures and processes have changed across generations as the cultural practices and institutions that produced them have evolved. In the Anthropocene, Earth’s ecology changes with us. Environmental change is social change, and social change is cultural change.” Erle C. Ellis on a democratic vision of the biosphere.

The Art of Naming

Last week we muddied the tree of life. This week, the long human attempt to straighten it all out by giving all the pieces names. In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl explores the history and principles of taxonomic naming.

Esoteric? I don’t think so. He dabbles a little in common names, those vernacular names for life-forms, in of themselves voluminous as all get out. For instance, crayfish from the English mispronunciation of the Old French crevise (écrivise in modern French) to the Louisiana crawfish, as these “fish” crawled rather than swam. But what he’s really concerned with is biological nomenclature, also known as scientific names, Latin names (they also include Greek), and binomials (there are also trinomials).

“One could say that the art of taxonomy is the ability to discern between intra- and interspecific variability. One can always find differences between any two animals, but how big do the differences need to be for talk of two species to be justified? Or vice versa, how many differences should be tolerated for two animals to be rightly interpreted as elements of a shared species?”

Homo sapiens: genus and specific epithet. Long time readers know I often pay attention to these things: there’s much to learn in them. (H. sapiens is rather pretentious and presumptuous, for two things.) For birds, I have Choate’s invaluable Dictionary of American Bird Names (there are several editions out there). And some are pretty easy to figure out, even without a resource. Think of the plants and animals with the specific epithet virginiana or virginiensis: pretty clear these were first found in Virginia, which in colonial times theoretically extended to the West Coast, or parts nearby.

I was surprised to learn here you can buy your way into a binomial by giving money, as “charity,” to the taxonomists. Usually when a person’s surname is part of a binomial it’s given as an honor by the namer (who can’t name the species after him/her/their selves). So there are some silly ones, named after favored performers and other uninteresting people. I prefer when there’s some actual data in the name: like that Purple Gallinule who visited Brooklyn last month: Porphyrio martinicus, the purple swamp hen from Martinique.

By the way, Rick Wright is an excellent source for the histories of bird naming.

Colors of the Season

Blackgum.Sweetgum on a cloudy day. (At least three different trees.)Sweetgum, with late afternoon sun.A subtle meadow for the finish.

Last Insects?

It’s definitely autumn. Yet there are lingerers in the freakish-now-normal mildness. On Wednesday, for instance, I was quite surprised to see a Monarch Butterfly vibrating by on my lunchtime walk in Green-Wood. At first I thought it was a leaf, as one would this time of year. Further exploration also turned up a skipper in a still-blooming patch of buddleia. There were also a half dozen bumblebees, a few honeybees, and a fly or two. In addition, there were a couple of Green Darner Dragonflies. Oh, and nearby, a bat in the air! There were, however, many fewer birds than there were on Sunday, the last time I was there. I photographed this madcap Japanese maple on Sunday. While doing so, I saw some movement under its branches. Another late butterfly!It came out for the sun. A Red Admiral. An adult like this, presuming it made it past the gauntlet of Phoebes, will hibernate through the winter. The northern reaches of this species’ territory are too cold, however (still?), so they head south. Could this one be going further south or will it try to over winter here?


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  • There's a purple to the pastel sky, and wind-whipped shadows of the trees on the slush. 3 hours ago
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