BIRDS OF NEW ENGLAND AND EASTERN NEW YORK - HOFFMANN

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INTRODUCTION

A GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF NEW ENGLAND AND EASTERN NEW YORK

I

THE OBJECT AND PLAN OF THIS GUIDE

There is something infectious in the enthusiasm of a student of birds. To hear him talk about the excitement of seeing a new bird, to read his account of it, or, best of all, to go afield with him on a May morning, is often enough to awaken a new interest, which enriches life to a surprising degree. The study of birds presents plenty of difficulties, which add fuel to the flame of real enthusiasm; there are sloughs of despond beyond which the faint-hearted never get. A guide who knows the way, its pitfalls and short cuts, is always welcome, and almost necessary in these days when our only weapon is the opera-glass. In spite of the fact that many excellent books are now available, the author offers another, both in the belief that there can never be too many good guides, and in the hope that this book has been especially adapted to the growing class of beginners in bird study.

The book is the result of experience with many field classes. Every effort has been made to emphasize the aspect of birds as seen out of doors, to describe their general or most prominent colors rather than any mark difficult to see on the living bird, and to call attention to their characteristic habits and haunts, and thus to enable the conscientious student to answer, with as much certainty as possible, the question, ”What is the bird that I have seen?” The keys and the illustrations have been prepared with this end in view. There has been no attempt to give a complete description of the plumage, as it would look if the bird were held in the hand, nor does the book contain anything like full biographies of each species. Minute descriptions of the plumage and full accounts of the lives of the birds are to be found in many excellent books, some one of which may well be used to supplement this Guide.

Notes and songs have been carefully described, and as far as possible expressed in English syllables. The author is well aware that another listener might express the same sounds by very different syllables; he has not attempted to convey to any one unfamiliar with the song anything more than an idea of its length and accent, and perhaps a suggestion of the quality of its tone. It is hoped, however, that the songs as transcribed will be useful in identifying doubtful species, that any one comparing the transcripts in the book with his own field-notes, or, better still, with the songs themselves, will recognize their likeness to that of one species and their unlikeness to that of another.

The descriptions given in this Guide of the nests and eggs of those birds that breed in New York and New England are not intended to be full or detailed. If a nest and eggs have been found, but no clue to the parent birds has been obtained, these descriptions will not serve as a means of identification; in fact, even a large collection of nests and eggs is sometimes of little use in such a case. The descriptions are merely intended to guide the student in his search for a nest by indicating where it is generally placed, or if the student thinks he has discovered the nest and eggs of a certain species, they will tend to confirm or to dispel his belief.

The book attempts to be a guide for only a restricted region, --eastern New York, northern New Jersey, and New England. By this narrowing of the field, many species are eliminated which in other manuals bewilder a beginner and often lead him into error. No mention, moreover, is made of birds that are only irregular wanderers to the region.

As the student advances in the study of birds and be. comes more familiar with the commoner species and more interested in the subject, he often asks, “ Where or how can I see such and such a species, of which I read in Burroughs or Torrey ?” In the case of local or rare birds, an attempt has been made in this Guide to direct the student to certain favorable localities where the species will be either surely or probably found; and in every case the kind of country where a species is likely to occur is as fully described as possible.


II

BIRDS AND THEIR SEASONS

Though by far the greater number of our birds spend the winter months south of us, yet a few species of land birds and many sea-birds find food enough here even in winter to support life. If these species are also found in the same region in summer, they are known as permanent residents. Examples of this class are the Chickadee, the Crow, the owls, and the Grouse or Partridge. Several of them are birds that find their food on the limbs or twigs of trees, in the form of dormant insects or their eggs, others feed on the seeds of weeds or grasses, or on the berries or buds of bushes or trees. The owls live on mice or other small mammals. Most of the birds that live chiefly on insects are driven south by the approach of frost.

Besides these resident birds, our winter list includes birds that are found in summer to the north ward of us, migrants, in other words, for whom our latitude is far enough south to afford food. Examples of this class are the Shrike, the Golden-crowned Kinglet, and the Tree Sparrow; they are known as winter visitants. Another group of birds, including the Crossbills and the Pine Grosbeaks, generally resident in high latitudes, move southward at very irregular intervals, and then become abundant winter visitants.

The first warm days of March melt the snow from the hillsides of central New England and stir the hibernating insects; a few species of birds that have wintered only a few degrees to the south of us, now begin to move northward and arrive in New England; examples are the Bronzed Grackle and the Red-winged Blackbird. A few Bluebirds and a fairly large number of Song Sparrows winter in southern Connecticut and in the lower Hudson Valley, but in March the number becomes vastly larger, as the army from the south arrives. Most of the winter birds are still here, so that the March list is the winter list plus the March arrivals. In April, a larger number of species arrive from still farther south, but a few of the winter residents now leave for their summer homes, so that they must be subtracted from the April list. May brings back all the birds that have wintered south of us, as far south in many cases as Central or South America. It also drives northward our winter visitants, so that these no longer appear on the list. Some of these, such as the Tree Sparrow, breed outside the limits of the United States, so that they need not enter into our calculations again till they return in the fall; many others, such as the Brown Creeper and the Golden-crowned Kinglet, though they now vanish from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and the lower Hudson Valley, go no farther than the Adirondacks, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine to breed; these therefore appear later in the list of the summer birds of those regions. Some of the March migrants, too, such as the Fox Sparrow, pass farther north in April beyond the Canadian boundary and do not appear again in our lists till the fall. Others, both of the March and April arrivals, pass into northern New England and New York to breed, but are eliminated from our May list in the southern and central portions of our field.

By the middle of June, all birds are on their breeding grounds; lists of birds seen in the latter half of June and early July include only the permanent residents and the summer residents. But inasmuch as the summer birds of northern New York and New England differ so much from those of the rest of the field, as is more fully explained under the heading Distribution, the division of the key which is especially intended for northern New York and New England is larger for summer than for other seasons.

Many of our summer residents grow less numerous or disappear entirely before the first of September; very few migrants from the north are seen till the middle of the month, when the arrival of the Black-poll Warblers marks the beginning of the return tide. By the middle of October only a few of our summer residents and a few migrants remain, and by the first of December we come back to winter fare. The list for the autumn months will include, therefore, all our permanent residents, all our summer residents, except those that leave before the middle of September, and all the migrants.


III

MIGRATION

The migration of birds is their movement away from their breeding grounds at the close of one breeding season, and their return to it at the approach of the next. Almost all birds move about to a certain extent after they are no longer bound to the neighborhood of the nest, but when an Owl haunts the same swampy forest throughout the year and Downy Woodpecker wanders no farther from its woodland home than the nearest village, we call such birds non-migratory. The great majority of our birds, however, are forced by lack of food to move southward at the end of summer; some go only a short way, many pass beyond the limits of the United States, a few pass the Equator. It often happens that there are individuals of a species present both in summer and in winter; there are Chickadees, for instance, in New England at all seasons, though it is quite possible that they are not the same individuals that the more southern have been replaced by some that bred farther north. For our purpose, however, such birds must be considered permanent residents. Some species, Crows for instance, are permanent residents, but are much commoner in summer than in winter.

The wandering away from the breeding ground begins almost as soon as the young are able to fly ; Snowbirds often appear in the valleys, a mile or so from spruce growth, as early as the middle of July. During August, many of our resident birds undoubtedly move southward ; many have been silent for some time, so that we do not notice their departure. A few species, too, reach us from the north during July and August, the Solitary Sandpiper and the Great Blue Heron toward the end of July, the Northern Water-thrush and the Yellow-rumped Warbler in August. By the tenth of September, the great stream of northern birds sets in, reaching its height about the first of October, though the Fox and Tree Sparrows do not arrive till late in October. It is safe to say that by the fifteenth of December all the land-birds that intend to move southward have done so. In New England and New York, there is practically no change in bird-life (unless it be a further diminution in number of some wintering species) until the middle of February.

The first arrivals from the south, the Crow Blackbirds, Bluebirds, etc., reach the lower Hudson Valley by the end of February, and the latitude of Boston early in March. These are birds that have wintered within fairly easy reach, in the Carolinas perhaps, or in Virginia. Stormy weather delays them ; a warm spell with southwest winds brings them early. All through March and early April other birds which have wintered in the Southern States arrive. In the mean time, birds that have wintered in the tropics have been pushing into the Gulf States or into Florida, and at each warm wave they advance, till in May they flood New York and New England in a great wave. The first warm, fair night following a hot day, or, better still, two successive hot days, between the third and tenth of May, will generally bring the first Orioles ; the next such spell of heat will bring all the northern warblers and thrushes. If early May is cool and clear for days, the birds do not arrive in a great body, but slip through in little flocks, almost unnoticed. A cold northeast storm following suddenly on a hot wave makes the best conditions for observing migrants; they are held back in great numbers, and as they feed low in the bushes in such weather, they can be easily studied. About the city of New York, migration is practically over by Decoration Day ; a day or two later, the last Black-poll Warbler and Olive-backed Thrush have left the latitude of Boston. Only two or three rare migrants, the Mourning Warbler, for instance, occur regularly in June.

The above paragraphs deal chiefly with the migration of land-birds; the shore-birds and the sea-birds have somewhat different periods of migration. The sandpipers, plovers, and terns spend the winter to the southward, and return to their breeding grounds for the most part during May. A few species remain to breed off the coasts of New York and New England, but the vast majority pass farther north.

By the middle of July, many of the sandpipers begin to come back, and there is a heavy migration of the shore-birds during August and early September. Numbers of the ducks, loons, grebes, and gulls are winter visitants to our coasts; they begin to pass north in April, and by the end of May all that are going north have left. The gulls begin to come back in August, some of the sea-ducks, loons, and grebes in September, and throughout October there is a steady southward movement; by the first of December the bulk of those that winter farther south have already passed by.

There are several facts about the migration of birds that it is well for the observer to keep in mind. In many species the males precede the females by several days, — in the case of the Red-winged Blackbird by several weeks. If a species is a summer resident of any locality, and also a migrant to more northern regions, the first arrivals are almost always residents which return to the old breeding-places. The earliest Black-throated Green Warbler, therefore, will be found in some grove of pines where the bird breeds, and two weeks later, perhaps, the orchards and open woodland will be full of migrant Black-throated Green Warblers, passing north in company with other northern warblers. The resident birds, moreover, vary greatly in promptness; some one Catbird will be noted as an early bird, singing in his favorite thicket several days before his neighbors arrive. The period of migration of any one species varies, largely according to the abundance of the species, but also according to some unexplained idiosyncrasy of the bird. The Yellow-rumped Warbler is passing through sometimes for a period of over a month; the first Rusty Blackbird often appears late in March, and the last in early May. Certain birds are seen much less frequently in migration than one would expect from their abundance northward; the Winter Wren and the Sapsucker are examples. Some birds have very different routes in spring and fall; the Connecticut. Warbler is almost never found in New England in spring, but is sometimes locally common in the autumn, while the Blackburnian Warbler is much rarer in the autumn than in the spring. Several birds, therefore, the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and the Bay-breasted Warbler, for instance, occur as not uncommon migrants along the Hudson, or even in the Connecticut Valley, though rare in eastern New England.

The spring is an easier time to identify migrants than the autumn. Nearly all the males are in full song in the spring; very few sing at all in the autumn. Many birds change their plumage in the summer, and lose their bright distinctive marks. And yet, to an enthusiast, there is something very fascinating in the study of the fall migrants. In spring, the bird's song generally betrays his presence for some time before he is seen ; but in the autumn one is kept constantly on the alert to discover in the flocks of small restless warblers or sparrows, often dull colored and puzzling, some novelty or rarity.

Perhaps the most interesting experience connected with the study of birds is to hear the notes of migrants passing overhead on clear nights in August and September. The tsip of Black-poll Warblers or the chink of a Bobolink falling from the darkness, brings home to one with startling impressiveness the wonder of the long journey from northern New England to the Equator and back again.



IV

DISTRIBUTION

The fact that birds are not universally distributed is known to every one interested in natural history; that the Mockingbird is a southern, and not a northern bird is generally understood. The exact limits of the breeding area of any one bird are hardly to be defined even in New England, but the region where it breeds commonly may now be definitely mapped.

Two important factors must be borne in mind in studying the breeding areas of the birds of New England and New York: the latitude and the altitude. If we pass from New York city through southwestern Connecticut to New Haven, then up the Connecticut Valley to northern Vermont, we note in southern Connecticut the tulip-tree and the sweet gum; in central Connecticut we see them no longer, but we still see oaks and hickories; but by the time we reach Wells River in central Vermont, these too are left behind, and patches of spruce and fir appear on the distant hillsides. We have climbed only 407 feet from the sea, but we have traversed nearly three degrees of latitude, and hence these changes. They are due to a colder and moister climate at a higher latitude. Had we left the train in the Connecticut River Valley, at Greenfield, traveled westward to North Adams, and then climbed Mt. Greylock, almost 3000 feet above the railroad, we should have noted the same changes as we ascended the mountain; the oaks and nut trees would have disappeared, and been replaced by spruce and fir. But here the changes would have been due to altitude.

And as all life is intimately associated, the student of birds would have felt sure from the presence of the sweet gum trees in Fairfield County, Conn., that certain birds, the Southern Water-thrush for example, would be found breeding there, and from the spruces on Greylock or in northern Vermont, that Black and Yellow Warblers nested among them.

To predict what birds will be likely or certain to be found in any one place, we must, therefore, know first its latitude, southern Connecticut and northern Maine will have few birds in common; next, we must know the altitude of its hills and the character of their vegetation, — if they are high enough to be clothed with spruce, they will be frequented by birds unknown as summer residents in the lowland.

So regularly do certain groups of plants and animals, including birds, confine themselves to certain well-marked regions, that it has been found convenient to employ certain fixed terms to designate the areas where these groups are found. The sweet gum and the Southern Water-thrush are characteristic of the Atlantic Plain from southwestern Connecticut to Florida ; they are representatives, therefore, of what is known as the Carolinian or Upper Austral Life Zone. The spruce and the Black and Yellow Warbler occur throughout the forested region of Canada ; they are representatives, therefore, in northern New England of the Canadian Life Zone. So closely is the presence or absence of a certain wellmarked group of birds correlated with the presence or absence of the spruce and fir, that the nature of the forests becomes the first point one must settle with regard to any locality in southern New Hampshire or Vermont, or northern Massachusetts or New York. The accompanying map shows the extent in New England of the Upper Austral and Canadian Life Zones.

[graphic]

The country between these zones possesses many bird found in each of the neighboring belts, and none not shared by one or the other of them. It has therefore been called the Transition Zone. Its boundaries to the north concern us chiefly, for many birds cease to be found when we pass from this Transition belt to the Canadian.

Nothing is sharply defined in nature, and so the boundaries of these zones, though they may be well defined on maps, have in the actual country a very indefinite outline, one area fading almost insensibly into another. Moreover, certain birds, though confined to the spruce belt, begin to appear at its very margin, while others demand for a summer home deep spruce forests, or other conditions which are attained only well within the belt. Snowbirds, for instance, usually appear with the first small patches of spruce, in Worcester County, Mass.; Brown Creepers only in large-sized spruce forests, such as occur on Greylock and Monadnock; and Black-poll Warblers not until the Catskill or White Mountain region is reached. Similarly, some of the Carolinian birds, such as the Chat and the Orchard Oriole, are found beyond the range of the others, far up the Housatonic Valley or in eastern Massachusetts.

The range of any particular bird in the breeding season will be found in the account of that bird ; in many cases the map which shows the Life Zones will give the area throughout which the bird commonly occurs. Outside this area, the bird may be expected to occur sparingly, in places which approximate to the warmth or dryness of more southern regions, or to the coldness and moisture of the north. Certain lists given in this book should be studied in this connection, and a list is also given of " local lists” which may be either bought, or obtained in large libraries; these give the latest information as to species found breeding in the various localities of which they treat. The student cannot be too strongly urged to make out for himself, by the use of the map and of the lists above mentioned, a list of the species which may be expected to occur in summer in his locality, and to annotate it, by reference to this Guide, with notes as to the abundance of each species, the kind of country it frequents, and the best field-marks by which to recognize it. He will then be able, when he begins his work in the field, to eliminate a large number of birds from consideration, and save himself from an embarrassment of riches.

V

HINTS FOR FIELD WORK

Any time of year is good to begin the study of birds, though February is perhaps the best time. The number of species to be found in winter is so limited that a beginner can become familiar beforehand with the appearance and favorite haunts of those he is likely to find, so that he will welcome by name the first Golden-crowned Kinglet or Brown Creeper that he sees. The latter part of August and the first half of September, except at the sea-shore, is perhaps the worst time of year for students of birds. Birds are then silent and retiring ; one sees few species, but must distinguish them from among a far larger number of candidates than in winter.

Morning, as every one knows, is the best time of day to see and hear birds, but it is not necessary to rise at three or four, unless one wishes to accomplish a great deal in a morning. If one starts before eight there will be, even in summer, two or three hours when birds are fairly active. Between five and seven in the afternoon there is a renewal of song and activity. A high wind, or a steady northwest wind in spring, makes a poor bird day ; birds are then silent and retiring. A violent rain, of course, keeps them under cover, but they delight in warm showers.

The first impression a beginner gets on a spring morning is of a confusion of sound, and if he attempts to find the individual songsters, he is often discouraged by the brief glimpses he gets of some distant and departing bird. An experienced student has in the mean time noted the songs of many species, and recognized old friends by a hint of color, a trick of flight, or some mysterious general effect. Let the beginner patiently continue his walk, keeping, if possible, near mixed growth of trees or bushes, especially near water. Before long he will come upon some bird, or group of birds, busily occupied in feeding, or startle one from the ground to a neighboring twig. Now is his opportunity; if the bird is in good view, let him seize opera-glass, note-book, and pencil, and note everything possible about the stranger. On every walk, though the great majority of birds will tantalize a beginner by their restlessness, some one will favor him with a chance for leisurely survey, and a cataloguing of all its markings. It is frequently possible to draw birds out of thick cover by kissing the back of one's hand, so as to produce a squeaking sound.

After the student has learned the commoner birds, he should begin following up strange sights and sounds. Often the chase is long and futile; but generally, by cautious and persistent stalking, one brief glimpse after another yields the desired total. A new song should be followed to its source and the singer noted. I have then found it helpful to set down in syllables what the bird seemed to my ear to say. This habit not only trains one's ear but also aids in fixing the song, so that it can be recalled.

The secret of rapid progress lies, as in all things, partly in native talent, a quick eye and ear, and a retentive memory, but also in preparation. Each new week in the year, each new place one visits, should be read up beforehand, as one reads up a city in a guide-book. If April is approaching, look through the key for April, and note that one of the Warblers that is now to be looked for has yellow under parts, wags its tail, and has a song like that of the Chipping Sparrow. If besides, one has an opportunity to visit a large museum, and to see the mounted bird, one will have a mental image that will often make instant recognition possible. The study of good drawings of the birds is the next best preparation. The reading of books like those of Bolles, Burroughs, and Torrey is a great aid, as well as a pleasant stimulus.

Opera-glasses are almost indispensable. The best for bird study magnify about three and a half times; in other words, the bird is brought that much nearer to you. The Zeiss glasses magnify many more times, and commend themselves by their small compass and large field. For sea-birds which are riding the water in one place, a powerful marine-glass or even a small telescope is useful.

Note-books are indispensable, and it is often well to carry a handbook into the field, so that a bird can be looked up on the spot, and some important point settled, if possible, by examining the bird again and again.

It soon becomes evident to a student that birds are much more plentiful in some spots than others. Often one can learn from others where the best places are; if not, one should try the edges of broad valleys, or the borders of streams where bushes, swamp, and pasture alternate. As a rule, the more diversified the country, the more birds there will be. In winter, warm sheltered hollows are attractive. In migration time it is particularly important to find favorable places.

When a student gets far enough to get the nesting fever, he has an endless and intense pleasure before him. The nesting season treads fast on the heels of the spring migration ; many birds, in fact, have built before the May migrants come. To find nests it is necessary to have found them; that is to say, after one has been found, it is much easier to find the second, for one knows then where to look. One must, moreover, be constantly on the alert for the slight hints which are often so important. A bird going to and from its nest slips along in a very different fashion from its ordinary careless wandering. A straw or bit of hair in a bird's mouth is a broad hint; sit down at once, and try to beat the bird at a waiting game.

The capacity to take hints grows by practice, as the powers of the eye and ear grow. The rapid identifications of the expert seem marvelous at first, but a beginner soon learns to tell a flying Goldfinch as far as he can see it. As season follows season, his eye, ear, and memory serve him better and better, and at last he too walks through woods and fields, hearing and recognizing distant calls or bits of song, or identifying the passing birds by a glimpse of some well-known bit of color, or by some marked peculiarity of flight.

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