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).
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 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.