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A Well-trod Path: Birding Point Breeze

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Moustached Warbler, Nicolas Huet

In 1823, the director of the natural history museum at Leiden, Coenraad Jacob Temminck, published the formal description of a new warbler, first collected “in the countryside near Rome.” Temminck, one of the most famous systematists of his day, graciously credited the type specimen of his new species, which he named Sylvia melanopogon, to “the efforts of the young Prince of Canino.”

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 3.27.40 PMCharles Lucien Jules Laurent Bonaparte, Prince of Canino and Musignano, turned twenty that summer of 1823. He had been married in June of the year before, to his older cousin Zénaïde Laetitia Julie Bonaparte; each was the child of one of Napoleon’s brothers, and their marriage, planned, according to Patricia Tyson Stroud, when the future bride was five years old, was an important ingredient in the Bonaparte family’s dynastic ambitions.

 

By the time Temminck’s description of the Moustached Warbler was published in late December 1823, the young prince and the princess (already in an interesting circumstance) had long since left Europe for the New World, where they arrived in New York City on September 8, 1823 (Stroud). Not long thereafter, the young couple was welcomed by Zénaïde’s father and Charles’s father-in-law and uncle, the former King of Spain, at his lavish estate on the Delaware River: Point Breeze.

 

Over the more or less five years he lived at Point Breeze, Charles Bonaparte would become one of the most famous and respected of American ornithologists,the continuator of Wilson and the colleague and on-again-off-again friend of Audubon. Indeed, the years the prince spent in New Jersey have been christened, with good reason, the Bonapartian Period in American ornithology.

 

It was at Point Breeze that Charles Bonaparte wrote his first ornithological article for publication in America, and it was there that he shot and described the first specimens of the Cooper’s Hawk known to science. And it was there, too, that Bonaparte “raised a living red owl … for the purpose” of determining just how many screech-owl species inhabited the lower Delaware Valley.

 

Screen Shot 2013-08-13 at 5.20.11 PMCharles and Zénaïde Bonaparte left the US early in 1828, never to return. The prince had, says Stroud, “compiled careful lists of all the mammals, birds, and reptiles he saw at Point Breeze,” lists preserved only in a manuscript now in the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris.

In the 185 years since, Point Breeze has gone largely unbirded. Just on the other side of Crosswicks Creek, Trenton Marsh (recently renamed, first “Trenton-Hamilton Marsh” and now “Abbott Marshlands”) is a well-known urban birding locality, but the former Bonaparte estate in Bordentown is not as readily accessible.

With the kind permission of the Divine Word Missionaries, owners since 1941 of what was the heart of Joseph Bonaparte’s Point Breeze, Sue, Ivan, Alison, and I were able for the first time to do a little ornitho-exploring yesterday morning, searching for feathered connections to a historic past that is now otherwise nearly invisible.

Point Breeze

With calm winds, high humidity, and dark skies, the morning wasn’t exactly full of migrants. A few flocks of Common Grackles passed overhead, and Chimney Swifts and Barn and Bank Swallows hunted high in the sky. Blue Jays were everywhere and noisy; too many to have been just local birds, they were obviously gathering in preparation for the next stage of their southbound flight.

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We found the woods at the south end of the property very quiet, but it was here, in the Lake House, that Charles and Zénaïde lived and where he kept his collections. The house, like nearly all of the buildings dating from the Bonapartes’ time of residence, is long gone, but there are still discernible traces of the carriage road that once led to it, an evocative sight beneath what is now a forest of tall tulip trees and beeches.

Point Breeze

On May 10, 1825, just down the Delaware in Philadelphia, Charles Bonaparte read a paper  describing some of the discoveries made in the course of Titan Peale’s exploration of Florida.

Among the many bird skins Peale brought back with him, Bonaparte found “particularly worthy of immediate notice”

an undescribed Dove, that may be distinguished from the [Mourning Dove], which it closely resembles, by the following characters: … an amythestine spot under the ear; tail of twelve feathers, short, even, with a black band; three outer feathers pearl gray at tip.

Alexander Rider, in Bonaparte, American Ornithology (1828)

Zenaida Dove, Alexander Rider

Bonaparte named this “new and charming little species” with its “mild and pleasing expressionColumba zenaidaand shortly thereafter wrote to his wife, in an undated letter translated by Stroud (256),
Zenaida lives! A proof of this is in the sweet Zenaida dove, Columba zenaida Bonaparte. It is at all times so delightful to think that a thousand years from now this mark of my esteem and of my tenderness will live on in this lovely species. I take the occasion to make known to the world that it is in your honor that I have bestowed this name. At this moment I can only love you on paper–what truly interests me in the world is you.
A dozen years later, in his Geographical and Comparative ListBonaparte revised his classification of the pigeons. Where before he had been content to fit the North American species into the catch-all genus Columbain 1838 he divided them into several genera, based largely on tail shape. For the square-tailed doves of the tropics, Bonaparte coined the genus name Zenaida — and, apparently to avoid the tautological name Zenaida zenaida, changed the name of his wife’s dove to Zenaida amabilis. The name is even more touching followed by the then-customary author abbreviation “Nobis”: for Charles Bonaparte, the Zenaida Dove was “Zénaïde, lovable to us.”
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In spite of such gestures of affection, all was not billing and cooing in the Bonaparte household. Though the marriage produced twelve children, it was not endlessly happy, and finally, in the spring of 1854, Zénaïde was granted a decree of legal separation. She died six months later.
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Of all the houses and outbuildings Joseph Bonaparte constructed at Point Breeze, only one stands intact: the Gate House, a modest but appealing structure that once overlooked the entrance to the estate’s formal gardens.

Point Breeze

It’s not likely that Charles Bonaparte spent much time in this house, but it, too, has its claim to ornithological fame.

For at least part of his time at Point Breeze, Louis Mailliard, Joseph’s secretary, confidant, and friend (and often rumored to have been his son), occupied this house. Mailliard’s son Adolphe succeeded his father as Bonaparte’s amanuensis; he stayed on after Joseph returned to Europe, building a house just across the road from Point Breeze.

Two sons were born in Bordentown to Adolphe and Ann Eliza Ward Mailliard. Around 1867, the family moved to California, where young John and Joseph Mailliard found that

Marin County was a paradise for young fellows in those days…. the line of natural history was the one most common among boys — the collecting of birds’ eggs.

The young naturalists “fell in with” Charles A. Allen, of Allen’s Hummingbird fame, who helped them skin their birds; in return, Allen was “given a cottage and about an acre of land on [the Mailliard place] … for a nominal rent.”

Both of the younger Mailliards remained enthusiastic collectors, and they became munificent patrons of the California Academy of Sciences, where both also occupied curatorial positions. John Mailliard‘s natural history activities were occasionally interrupted by business concerns, but Joseph, his health never stable, devoted himself entirely to things ornithological.

Joseph Mailliard, 1902

Joseph Mailliard, 1902

The Mailliards knew and were known by everybody who was anybody in early twentieth-century California ornithology. Joseph Grinnell named the Modesto Song Sparrow for Joseph Mailliard, and A.J. Van Rossem’s Bicolored Red-winged Blackbird commemorates both brothers in its subspecies name mailliardorum. 

Van Rossem published the description of his new blackbird in the Condor, a fitting place indeed to honor men who had been active supporters of the Cooper Ornithological Club since its earliest days — an organization named for the son of the man for whom Charles Bonaparte had named the Cooper’s Hawk, back at Point Breeze.

Cooper's Hawk

There are days when the birds show up, and there are days, like yesterday, when they simply don’t. But “good” birds aren’t always necessary for good birding. Sometimes it is enough to walk paths new to us but old to ornithology, to stand beneath old trees and to admire the same views that inspired others, long ago. Sometimes, just sometimes, it can be enough to recall other people’s memories. 

Point Breeze

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