Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tinicum’s Most Famous Bird, 35 years Later (Homage to Johnny Miller, 1939-2009)

by Gregg Gorton January 27, 2015

When Johnny Miller left his house the morning of October 19, 1979 to conduct his weekly shorebird census at “Tinicum,” a birdy patch of freshwater tidal marsh just a stone’s throw from his door, which he knew better than anyone had before (and, likely, since), he had no inkling that he was about to discover a feathered traveler from across the world.  He drove over to the main entrance of the roughly 700-acre preserve that in 1972 had been designated the Tinicum National Environmental Center (TNEC), the first such entity in the U.S., and, since 1991—as the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge--the most urban among all U.S. wildlife refuges.  Per his routine, he made his way out along the gravel surface of the dike surrounding the main water impoundment, ticking off species and numbers of migrating sandpipers and plovers.  Then he came to a vantage point from which he could scan northward in a nearly 180-degree arc across mudflats where the tide-driven water from the Darby Creek was rapidly rising.  His 9x35 bins (he did not carry a scope) revealed a group of yellowlegs that looked to him to be the Greater species (Tringa melanoleuca).   But among them was a slightly different shorebird that he figured to be a Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica).  He had seen that species in past years at Tinicum in the early-to-mid-Fall, and—though a very “good bird”—it’s presence was not too surprising.  But this bird didn’t look quite right:  some of the field marks didn’t jibe with his mental image of Hudsonian Godwit.  As he watched it forage in the marsh by probing—dowitcher-like--he jotted down key features such as the “rufous-buff color on its neck” and “the bill longer and straighter than a Hudsonian’s would be.”  Then, suddenly,  the odd bird took flight—as he had no doubt hoped it would, eventually—and as it flapped away he was able to glimpse its “white and gray underwings, with broad white wing stripes,”  as he wrote later in the report he prepared for his bird club’s journal, Cassinia (the journal of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, or DVOC).  That was it! --Suddenly he flashed back to the hundreds of Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa), or “blackwits,” he had seen in Australia during a birding trip there five years previously.  That had to be the answer to the question that had formed minutes before in his mind:  what the heck is this thing? 

After Johnny returned home to Prospect Park later in the day, he called a few fellow birders, hoping they could help confirm his identification.  One of them, Keith Richards, also a member of DVOC, managed the “phone chain,” that erstwhile system once used to alert other birders to rarities.  Two others, Frank and Barb Haas, were playing bridge with yet another avid birder, John Ginaven, and his wife, Peggy, when the phone rang.  The Haas’s were not members of DVOC because Barb was not eligible, and Frank (Superintendent of Ridley Creek State Park) had therefore refused to join until the club voted to accept female members (which it did, finally, in late 1982).  Johnny’s call got their attention fast; in fact, Barb and John suddenly realized that an odd-looking, godwit-like shorebird they had seen only the day before at the Philadelphia sewage ponds might have been the very bird Johnny was now describing!  Barb recalls that on that prior day she had said to Ginaven when they both were stumped by the unknown bird that “it has enough white in the wings to be a Willet, but in all the wrong places!”  

After having assured Johnny that they would help, the three birders in the group jumped up from the table and rushed over to the Haas’s extensive library of bird books.  Thumbing quickly through a few of them, they finally found an illustration of Black-tailed Godwit to scrutinize.  It certainly looked like the mystery bird two of them had seen!  (Today, Frank and Barb can’t recall the exact book they used to make the ID, but it may have been “some book on birds of South Asia or Australia that we had.”)  Then they called a few other members of DVOC and some birders from New Jersey, and arranged for a return trip the next day to the “scene of the crime,” as Barb calls it, which was the original place she and Ginaven had seen the bird—the sewage ponds.

October 20th was “quite sunny, and not particularly cold or windy” when they arrived at the Water Treatment Plant gate.  Surprisingly, they were able to “walk in unobserved,” rather than having to convince the security guard to let them enter yet again.  Other birders also showed up, and many had spotting scopes.  Once inside, they were able to re-locate the “suspect” bird as it flew overhead, and indeed it displayed crucial features of Limosa limosa, the Black-tailed Godwit.  This apparition had to be that suspected interloper from a far land because its bill was longer and straighter than a Hudsonian’s, its underwings were pale (neither sooty, nor with black axillaries), and it had a broad white wing stripe.  And, since its plumage was generally gray and its tail was white with a black tip—but not barred—it was certainly not a Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica), either.  Thus, this now less-mysterious bird appeared to be a winter (basic) plumage Limosa limosa, albeit with a trace of alternate-plumage color still left on its neck.  In fact, they figured this had to be the very bird Johnny had seen, and it must have been flying back and forth between the two nearby locations where it had now been spotted thrice and identified twice.  But how could they really be so sure that the birds seen at the two places were actually one and the same?  Well, it just so happened that this was the very first Pennsylvania record for this species, a fact that by then had been loudly bruited among the assembled gawkers--so the chances were pretty darned good…. --But suddenly the guard spotted the group of birders, some of whom were carrying those long devices that he told them could be “weapons or something,” and that was it!—they were all summarily kicked out.      

IMAGE:  Figure 30 from Pratt, et al. (1987):  Black-tailed Godwit (above) and Hudsonian Godwit (below),  by H. Douglas Pratt (used with permission)

This godwit even turned out to be only the fourth record of its species for all of the mainland U.S.  The very first record of Black-tailed Godwit in that region of 48 states had been a bird discovered feeding in a flooded field about a mile north of Buzzard’s Bay in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts on April 23, 1967.  First thought to be a Hudsonian, it lingered for a week and was eventually seen and photographed with wings upraised and correctly identified by James Baird of Massachusetts Audubon, who listed some of the key features differentiating the two species in the brief report about it he wrote for The Auk a year later.  However, he erroneously stated that it was the first record for the (entire) U.S. and the second for North America, not realizing that there were some obscure records of the Asian subspecies (L. l. melanuroides) from as far back as 1907 in Alaska--on Little Diomede Island in the Bering Sea and from 1961 on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian chain.  (The melanuroides subspecies is now sometimes treated as a full species, the Eastern Black-tailed Godwit, half the total population of which winters in Australia after breeding as far north as Siberia.) 
FOR THE FULL ARTICLE, please migrate to this link on the DVOC website,

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