Happy Armistice Day

Philadelphia celebrates the Armistice
Philadelphia celebrates the Armistice

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I, a conflagration into which America was dragged in 1917, and which sorely affected daily lives everywhere. The situation where Stone worked, at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP), was typical. Just doing the minimum museum maintenance was a challenge. There was a shortage of personnel due to military service; tight funds even led to a decision not to replace one of the janitors when he left. A coal shortage kept the Academy closed altogether two days a week, the public halls in the museum went unheated, and some days even the work rooms went without it; at home, Stone got a coal delivery in January 1918 just in time to keep him from having to let the furnace go out. Down in sleepy, provincial Cape May, where the Navy built two bases at the beginning of the war, long-time friend and “resident ornithologist” Walker Hand told Stone about all the commotion, “I fear that the old quiet days and places are to pass out.”

Stone grew despondent over the war, telling A.K. Fisher in March 1918, “I get very much depressed sometimes & begin to think that even when the war is over it will take so long to get back to the good old times that I shall hardly live to see it.” In January he had told Frank Chapman, “We have a service flag up in my [ANSP] room where the DVOC meets with 17 stars on it [i.e., 17 members were currently serving in the military] – so much for the old Club which celebrated its 28th anniversary last Thursday.” (Stone reported in the April 1919 Auk that a total of 27 DVOCers had served during the war.) One club member, Archibald Benners, died of wounds received in the fighting at Belleau Wood, France. Some of Stone’s fellow DVOC founders had sons who went off to the war.

The American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) had many members who served overseas and three – Eric Brooke Dunlop of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Walter Freeman McMahon of New York City, and Douglas Clifford Mabott of Washington, D.C. – made the ultimate sacrifice. Stone noted in the April 1920 Auk that the Belgian Ornithological Society was getting back up on its feet after German occupation, and had lost two of its officers (secretary and treasurer) as wartime casualties.

Turns out, of course, that World War I didn’t end up being “the war to end all wars.” Long-time AOU treasurer Jonathan Dwight was outraged at German U-boat atrocities during the war, telling Stone, “It is so stupid of the German beasts to make sure of everybody hating them for their evil deeds – for all time!” – but there was even greater German evil on the horizon to further ensure lasting worldwide hatred for at least a good long time, if not all time, and leading to yet another global conflagration. With our awareness of what was to come, we may view the euphoria attendant with the announcement of the armistice 100 years ago today with a bit of wistfulness, but it shouldn’t stop us from celebrating what a beautiful moment it was in our history.

A Bird Studies Bash for the Birthday Boy

Shortly before the 152nd anniversary of the birth of Witmer Stone, a DVOC-sponsored celebration of Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM) was held at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Bill Uhrich, a writer and photo editor with the Reading Eagle newspaper, had the wonderful idea of reuniting the first three sets of BSOCM for the first time since December 15, 1937. (Each of the 1,400 2-volume sets has a unique identification number, 1–1,400, on the last page of volume 2). On that long-ago evening, Stone hosted several of the artists and photographers who contributed to the book, then hot off the presses. Stone signed set #1 to his wife Lillie, and sets 2 and 3 to artists Earl Poole and Conrad Roland. Set #1 was recently donated to the Berks History Center, and earlier this year set #2 was donated to ANSP and Bill purchased set #3. So the stage was set for Bill’s idea for the “reunion.”

Matthew Halley, Bob Peck, and Jennifer Vess at ANSP really pulled out the stops by filling some cases with original BSOCM artwork. One case had numerous drawings by Stone’s lifelong friend Herbert Brown:


One of my favorite BSOCM illustrations is Brown’s rendering of an Osprey rising from the water with a fish. Brown captured that moment so perfectly that I think of it every time I see the age-old drama play out in coastal New Jersey:


The evening also represented the long-delayed debut of some Roland illustrations made for BSOCM that Stone, for whatever reason, decided not to use. He used Roland’s Black Skimmer and Dunlin, but not his Semipalmated Sandpiper (lower right; photo by Gregg Gorton):


Bill Uhrich’s recently-purchased copy of set #3 had Roland’s original Herring Gull drawing tipped in…


…along with a wonderful Roland illustration of Stone that I had never seen before:


Joe and Charles Poole, sons of BSOCM artist Earl Poole, recently made a very generous donation to ANSP of a collection of their father’s artwork, the manuscript of Poole’s unpublished Days With the Birds, and, as an added and unexpected bonus, Earl’s set #2 of BSOCM. One case had a nice sampling of Poole’s typically elegant bird drawings, some of which appear in BSOCM:


The Berks History Center is the home of set #1 of BSOCM, as well as the original of Poole’s Osprey frontispiece, and the center’s executive director, Sime Bertolet, very graciously brought both along for the event. Here are Sime (L) and Bob Peck, curator of art and artifacts and senior fellow at ANSP, standing next to Poole’s Osprey, with the first 3 sets of BSOCM laid out in front of them:


Kudos to Matthew Halley and Greg Cowper for pulling some Stone material from ANSP’s world-famous collections, including some Orthoptera collected by Stone during his last summers in Cape May; a display about the history of “Stone’s Locust,” named for him by ANSP colleague James A.G. Rehn


…and some juvenile terns that are associated with one of my favorite Cape May Stone stories.  He visited a Common Tern nesting colony on Ephraim Island, New Jersey (next to Wildwood Crest) in August 1928, and discovered it had been washed out by a recent storm. He picked up 14 dead juveniles and took them back to the house he and Lillie rented each summer at 909 Queen Street in Cape May. There, he worked them up into study skins for ANSP’s collections. Pioneering bird-banding ornithologist Frederick C. Lincoln later wrote to Stone, “I can imagine the highly scented condition of at least part of your house after the ‘tern episode.’” The people who owned 909 Queen could have expected as much for renting to an ornithologist. Here are three of the young terns collected by Stone:


Many thanks to the people mentioned here who were responsible for the event, especially Bill Uhrich, whose passion for BSOCM led to a great evening for the ~40 people who attended. Below, Bill (far right, being introduced by Matt Halley) is about to give his  talk about his research into BSOCM‘s history and artwork. Alas, this is probably the last time I will see the lovely old Academy reading room, where I spent so many hours watching Witmer Stone’s story come to life through the Academy’s outstanding Stone archival material. Sadly, the room, whose walls respire with Academy history, is being “modernized,” and one more locale from another time is eliminated in the name of “progress.”


Urner Got There First 

Working in Ocean County, New Jersey this summer, I noticed flocks of shorebirds, mostly Sanderlings, heading south over the ocean beginning in mid-July. I am inexperienced with shorebirds in general, particularly ones flying at a distance, and my optics left a lot to be desired, but I was still able to observe some interesting flights. Highlights included 28 Whimbrels on 8/3 (and over 100 for the days I counted); almost 1,400 Sanderlings on 7/28; and 877 Sanderlings, 21 Semipalmated Plovers, 16 Ruddy Turnstones, 30 Black-bellied Plovers, 17 Short-billed Dowitchers, and 4 Red Knots on 8/7. Days with moderate to strong south winds were best, but I saw several flights on light westerly winds as well (the wind condition most mornings).

Whimbrels migrating past Seaside Park, NJ

I wondered how many other people were aware of the flights under the various conditions, and in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM) I found at least one person who knew all about them several years ago: the legendary Charles A. Urner. Concerning  the southbound shorebird flights, he told Stone, “In a  number of species observed from the seashore the main flights coincided with a steady south breeze, but they were not always so associated, and considerable movements of the several species were observed when the wind was very light from west or south.” I should have known: Urner got there first.


Charles Anderson Urner (1882–1938) moved in two very different worlds: he was a field ornithologist extraordinaire, and also a writer, editor, and eventually vice president at Urner-Barry, a commodities reporting company founded by his grandfather in 1858 (and still in business today).

Urner was a reformed duck hunter who put down his gun, took up binoculars, and published regularly on New Jersey shorebird migration the last 10 years of his life. Most of his counts were of migrants utilizing the salt meadows, particularly in the northern part of the state. Stone used Urner’s data extensively in BSOCM, and eleven years after Urner’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1938, age 56, Robert W. Storer published the final dataset from the ten-year study in The Auk.  Urner was active in the Linnaean Society of New York, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, and the New Jersey Audubon Society.


Joseph Hickey, author of the classic A Guide to Bird Watching, and Peregrine Falcon biologist, recalled Urner from Linnaean meetings: “Urner was as close to a Born Ecologist as I have ever seen. He had a passion for census-taking. He wanted to do a quantitative survey of the bird life of New Jersey. He ran roadside transects and quadrat studies of succession on a landfill created by dredging. He was superb in field identification (the first to distinguish between the call notes of the two dowitchers), and he had an absolutely gorgeous sense of humor.” Today, shorebirds can still be seen migrating down the New Jersey coast under the same conditions described by Urner 80 years ago, and his pioneering counts are a great resource for comparison with present-day flights.

Barn Swallow Studies at Old – and New – Cape May

Cape May birder Tom Reed recently posted a video of a Barn Swallow flight along the South Cape May Meadow (SCMM) dunes, and added a passage from Bird Studies at Old Cape May about similar flights seen by Witmer Stone. Many kudos to Tom for the post, available here. Continuing his pioneering migration studies around Cape May Point, Tom has been counting from the SCMM dunes this fall, and posting his finds here.

Conrad Roland's BSOCM Barn Swallow
Conrad Roland’s BSOCM Barn Swallow


Walker Hand: A Nashural Born Poet?

Witmer and Lillie Stone stayed with their good friends Walker and Laura Hand on many trips to Cape May over the years. Hand sent Stone a letter in anticipation of one such visit in September, 1925, telling him, “Come along, ‘the latch string is out.’” Hand also included a humorous poem in the letter. I quickly realized it wasn’t a classic for the ages, but I put it in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature because it was a nice example of Hand’s humor. I had a distant recollection of Ogden Nash poetry from my junior high days, and there was something “Nash-ian” about Hand’s effort. Here is the passage from the book (“The Dr.” is Stone; “the Point” is Cape May Point):

 “The north winds do blow and we shall have snow and what will the Dr. do then? Poor thing/ He’ll to go the Point, search out every joint, and see many birds on the wing, wing, wing.” Not exactly up there with Shelley or Coleridge, or even Ogden Nash, but give him points for trying.

Imagine my surprise the other night when I discovered it isn’t just “up there” with Ogden Nash – it is Ogden Nash! I came across “Ma, What’s a Banker?” in a Nash collection, and it begins, “The North wind doth blow, And we shall have snow, And what will the banker do then, poor thing?/ Will he go to the barn To keep himself warm, And hide his head under his wing?” Well, that explains why it reminded me of Ogden Nash.

Hand’s wife Laura had a sense of humor, too – in fact, she got her last laugh on everybody after she died. I found her grave in a Cape May Court House cemetery, and was puzzled by the incomplete birth date – just “18  ” with no decade or year indicated. I thought maybe the gravestone mason wasn’t sure of the birth year when cutting the inscription, figured he’d wait to finish it when he found out, then forgot about it.


Laura’s granddaughter, Laura Hedrick, cleared up the mystery for me: People used to ask Laura Hand how old she was, and she always refused to tell them. She imagined that when she died people with inquiring minds would run to the cemetery to read her gravestone and finally find out her age, so she arranged to have the year left off. Presumably, there were some disappointed busybodies visiting Laura Hand’s grave in the immediate aftermath of her demise.

Witmer and the Winging Waterthrush

As I discussed in The Fascination of Nature, Witmer Stone and the Audubon Society wardens, although clearly aware of the phenomenon, apparently didn’t spend much time studying the neotropical migrant flights through Cape May Point. That’s not the case today, when the Cape May Bird Observatory monitors  the flights every day from mid-August to the end of October from atop the bayside dike in the Higbee’s Beach Wildlife Management Area. Stone would doubtless be “astonished” at the skills of today’s observers, and the numbers of migrants they count (although the flights were certainly larger in Stone’s day, if he’d been paying more attention to them).

Tom Johnson is one of the outstanding young birders who monitors today’s flights; his ability to differentiate the similar-sounding, buzzy call notes and the subtle field marks of the migrants zipping past (most of the birds are identified in flight), and to also take field-guide quality photos of them, leaves visitors shaking their heads. Tom recently mentioned to me that he was impressed by Stone’s Bird Studies at Old Cape May description of Northern Waterthrush flight behavior: “The Northern Waterthrush can be readily identified when flying in the open. Not only is it darker and apparently blacker than any other small bird seen against the sky or the meadows, but its flight is characteristic. The body is long and slender and the long swoops between the series of short wingbeats produce a diving, somewhat undulatory movement, but more irregular and less pronounced than that of the Goldfinch.”

Tom thinks it’s remarkable that while today’s dike counts, and the counters’ ever-increasing knowledge of flight calls and on-the-wing field marks, are considered cutting edge research, Witmer Stone had started in on such observations 80 years ago. It makes you think that if we could bring Stone back and put him up on the Higbee’s dike some fall morning with westerly winds blowing, hand him a pair of modern optics, get him a little coaching from Tom et al., old Witmer would soon be getting the hang of identifying the whizzing wood warblers. Thanks to Tom for his insights, and for sending along two of his typically outstanding photos of Northern Waterthrushes in flight taken from the Higbee’s dike:




A Stone Bibliography

A few people have asked me why I didn’t include a bibliography of Stone’s publications in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. I had many reasons for that decision, one being the availability of such information on the Internet. There are a few ways to find his publications online, but I found the best one so far recently on the German Wikipedia site. It’s not only nearly exhaustive, but also contains links to many of the articles. Many kudos to the German Wiki authors for doing so much work to provide a great reference!

Tabasco Ned and The Mysterious Vulture Citation

One of the little unsolved ornithological mystery gems I came across in my research for The Fascination of Nature had at its core one of the book’s real “characters”: the never-boring, serial truth-bender Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, heir to the still-extant (and still in the family) Tabasco sauce company. McIlhenny got very chummy with Stone in the 1930s, even paying the expenses of a trip Witmer and Lillie took to McIlhenny’s Louisiana estate in 1935. He was simultaneously sending articles to Stone for publication in The Auk, some of which, as detailed in my book, contained bogus material. McIlenny claimed in a 1937 Auk article that he had trapped and banded a Turkey Vulture x Black Vulture hybrid in Louisiana, and had sent the bird (alive) to Frederick C. Lincoln at the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington, D.C. This would be the only known instance of hybridization between the two species — if only it were true.

In Ralph S. Palmer’s excellent (and underappreciated) Handbook of North American Birds (Palmer was editor, and authored some of the accounts), the Turkey Vulture account states that the “hybrid” actually proved to be a Black Vulture with red paint applied to its head! Maybe it looked like this:


The assertion of the hoax was cited simply “E.P. Walker.” The Turkey Vulture account was written by Dr. Jerome Jackson, so I contacted him to get more info on his Walker citation. Dr. Jackson replied that the sentence about the hoax was an editorial insertion by Palmer (who passed away in 2003), and that he knew no more about the Walker citation than I did. He shared that Palmer had a card file (remember them?) for each species, and would sometimes pull info from the cards and insert them into the accounts, with limited documentation.

Some further recent research enabled me to get the picture about as clear as I guess we’re going to get it. According to another 1937 article he wrote, McIlhenny’s “hybrid” ended up at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.  “E.P. Walker” is undoubtedly Ernest Pillsbury Walker, who was assistant director at the zoo at that time, and presumably discovered, or heard of, the duplicitous paint job. At some point, Walker must have shared the painted vulture story with Palmer, who diligently added the info to his card file.

Bottom line: if a birder today thinks they’ve found the first-ever hybrid between a Turkey and Black Vulture, because they saw a bird that looked like a Black Vulture with a red head, a simple digital photo won’t do. They’ll have to capture the bird and try a little paint thinner on the head to make sure someone else out there isn’t up to Tabasco Ned’s old tricks.

Happy 150th!


Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the star of this website. But for that fortuitous occasion, the Academy of Natural Sciences would have seen their historic bird collection reduced to dust and feathers; modern botanists would give anything to know what was growing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens 100 years ago; and modern birders would think “old Cape May” referred to 1975, right before birds were discovered migrating through Cape May Point. So as we, in our astonishment, contemplate Plants of Southern New Jersey, Bird Studies at Old Cape May, and all the insights, delightful word pictures, mirth and merriment, and the many other ways our lives have been enriched by what the stork (fittingly) delivered to Anne and Frederick Stone a long time ago on this date, let’s pop a cork and thank our lucky stars that the modern Stone Age hits 150 today.

Germantown Academy Days

I am delighted to have an article about Witmer Stone’s Germantown days appearing in the current issue of the Germantown Historical Society’s journal The Crier. It’s an edited excerpt of passages from The Fascination of Nature, with some new material, including this about Germantown Academy (GA), Stone’s alma mater:

“Stone gave the commencement address at GA in 1935 and shared some recollections of his schoolboy days. Due to overcrowding, the school sat some of the boys at double-desks, instead of the usual single ones. Stone ended up having to share one with a younger boy named George Patterson, who continually encroached onto Stone’s half of the desk. Patterson later went on to international fame as a cricket player. There was an orchard adjacent to the schoolyard, and Stone said it was remarkable how many times the soccer ball was ‘accidentally’ kicked over the orchard fence when the apples were ripe. The school’s gymnasium was located in the attic, where the sloping roof prevented the students from attempting any overly ambitious athletic maneuvers on the rings or bars. The boys waggishly gave one teacher, Frank Fretz, the nickname ‘Father Fretz’ from his habit of addressing every student as ‘my son.’ The young scholars had to memorize the list of U.S. presidents in order; years later, thanks to the rote learning, Stone could still easily remember all of them through Rutherford B. Hayes (in office during Stone’s GA days), but had to stop and think to recall the ones since then.”

GA was, of course, actually in Germantown in Stone’s day; it moved to its current location in Ft. Washington in 1965. The old campus, with buildings dating from Stone’s time, is now occupied by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf:


The GA historical collection doesn’t contain any photos of Stone’s 1883 graduating class, but it does have one of his younger brother Frederick’s 1889 class, which included future University of Pennsylvania president Thomas S. Gates, and future Bird Studies at Old Cape May illustrator Herbert Brown, one of the Brown brothers with whom the Stone boys were great friends:

IMG_9213 - Copy2

Witmer delivered guest lectures about natural history at his alma mater in the 1890s, sparking a lifelong interest in ornithology in at least one of the students, and he always had a soft spot for his GA days. On a visit to the school grounds in April 2015, I could almost envision Stone and his classmates out on lunch recess, boisterously bantering, running and chasing, with the old soccer ball flying repeatedly into the orchard.