Monthly Archives: March 2015

Stone Trees

Many trees familiar to Stone are still with us, and provide a living link to his world. We can start with this huge oak (I saw it in winter, so didn’t have much to go on as to species) next to Stock Grange, where Stone spent many youthful summers (on all photos, you can click to enlarge):

Stock Grange

Not far from Stock Grange, in the Doe Run Presbyterian Cemetery, a huge White Oak stands near the graves of many of Stone’s Stock Grange ancestors, including his naturalist great-aunt Mary Steele:


Here’s a massive old oak in Wister Woods, where Stone and the Brown brothers spent much of their time while roaming the wide-open spaces around their Germantown homes:

Wister Oak II

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Stone Trees

A Cape May March Weekend c.1925

On this date 90 years ago (3/23/1925), Witmer Stone wrapped up a weekend trip to Cape May. He had finished off a note to T.S. Palmer on Friday, March 20th with “I am off to Cape May tonight to spend the weekend with Hand.” That referred, of course, to his great friend Walker Hand, described by Stone as “the ‘resident ornithologist’ of Cape May.” Hand was probably really more of a perceptive, knowledgeable outdoorsman than an “ornithologist,” but he and Stone taught each other a lot about birds over the years. In 1897, Hand built the house he lived in for the rest of his life at Washington St. & Madison Ave. in Cape May, now the “Inn at the Park” bed & breakfast:


In addition to an apparent influx of Field Sparrows that had wintered to the south, Stone had some Cape May “first of spring” sightings that weekend for Wilson’s Snipe (the same name as in Stone’s day, although there has been some nomenclatural flux in the interim), Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Chipping Sparrow, and a “last of spring” sighting of a Vesper Sparrow. Spring was certainly in the air: Robins were in full song, Song Sparrows were performing courtship flights, a male Red-winged Blackbird singing on the South Cape May marsh engaged in futile pursuit of two passing females, a Carolina Wren singing a “peculiar rolling song” had Stone uncertain what species he was hearing until he “caught sight of the singer in the act,” and a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage was preening on the oceanfront (Stone records that the grebe “fairly leaned over backward in the operation”).


Not everything in the air that weekend was spring-like and pleasant. Stone found a dozen Turkey Vultures on the Bayshore perched near the carcass of a hog that had been disposed of by a local farmer. The skeleton was surrounded by vulture footprints out to a distance of 30 feet, and the ground was “flecked with white downy feathers lost [by the vultures] in their contests for choice bits of carrion.” Another flock of 25 vultures was roosting at a pigsty by Pond Creek Meadows. Stone studied them at close range and noted that the ruff of feathers sticking up off the birds’ necks looked like “a rolled collar drawn over the head from behind like a sort of mantilla.” (How many times have you come across that word in the ornithological literature – or anywhere else?)

Vultures, porcine pleasantries, and all, it sounds like a nice, early spring weekend at the Cape. In 1921, after summering in Cape May for four years, Stone started making regular spring trips there. He probably often stayed with Hand, who, according to Stone, was largely unrecognized by his fellow townsmen for the “extent and soundness of his natural history knowledge and the esteem in which he was held by naturalists elsewhere.”

Frederick D. Stone Sr. and the Battle of Carlisle

Witmer Stone’s father, Frederick Dawson Stone Sr., served in the Civil War with a militia unit, the First Regiment Infantry of Pennsylvania (the “Gray Reserves”). A statue commemorating the Gray Reserves stands outside the Union League Club at Broad and Sansom streets in Philadelphia. This was one of several similar clubs formed during the Civil War to support President Lincoln and the Union cause:

Gray Resesves

Frederick Stone was stationed at Carlisle when that town was shelled by Confederate artillery on the evening of July 1, 1863, in a small but important sideshow to the nearby Gettysburg battle. Frederick always remembered the horror of the shelling, with men around him falling to the ground after being struck. A marker at Carlisle describes the engagement (click for full size):


The pillars in front of Carlisle Courthouse still have Confederate artillery scars from the battle (pillar photos by Donald Webb):

photo 2arrow

Closeup of pillar:

photo 3

If one of the Confederate shells at Carlisle on July 1, 1863 had followed a slightly different trajectory, you might not be reading this particular website blog right now.

Fox Sparrows Fairly Swarming

On this date 109 years ago (3/17/1906), Witmer Stone and James Rehn visited the Tuckerton/West Creek, New Jersey area. (Rehn was an Academy of Natural Sciences entomologist  who would later write Stone memorials for Cassinia and The Auk.) They discovered a heavy Fox Sparrow spring migration fallout, with hundreds of the birds “all over fences, chicken houses and elsewhere along the roads.” An unusually high number of migrant Fox Sparrows was noted that year during late February and March in the Delaware Valley; in Tuckerton Stone and Rehn found the birds “fairly swarming,” and “every thicket seemed full of them.”

WYO 2296

Fox Sparrows winter throughout the U.S. and breed mostly in Canada. There probably aren’t as many Fox Sparrows around as there were in 1906, but they’re still common birds, and their spring migration still peaks in mid-March in the Delaware Valley. In addition to the pleasure of seeing these striking, large sparrows with their fox-red streaks and bright yellow lower mandibles, the males can also often be heard singing on spring migration. The song is a beautiful,  finchy tumble of buzzy notes and slurred whistles, and Stone and Rehn must have heard hundreds of renditions of it on that day in 1906:

Wister Woods

In their youth, Witmer Stone, his brother Frederick, and their friends the Brown brothers – Amos, Stewardson, Herbert, and Francis – used to roam the wilds of Germantown (there’s a phrase that just doesn’t look right today). They tramped, climbed, observed, and collected to their hearts’ content; Witmer later recalled, “Our aim was to become familiar with all of the animal and plant life of that part of Germantown, as well as the minerals and rocks, and I think we nearly succeeded.” He described the area as “miles of open country, with delightful bits of woodland here and there, and the Wingohocking Creek, [which was] then a clear open stream.” One of the delightful bits of woodland was Wister Woods (“Fisher’s Woods” in Stone’s boyhood), part of the old Wister estate and a minute’s walk from the Stone house on Logan Street. When he was 16, Witmer drew a Liparis lilifolia (an orchid) that he found growing there (from the ANSP Archives):

Twayblade ANSP2

By the time Stone moved back to Germantown in 1922, the area was preserved as part of Fairmount Park, but a road (Belfield Avenue) had recently been put through the center of the woods, directly over where the now-buried Wingohocking Creek used to flow.

Migrating warblers can be found flitting and singing in the woods in spring, and a pair of Red-tailed Hawks lives there – maybe the direct descendants of a bird about which Stewardson Brown wrote in his journal for January 2, 1888, “Saw a large Red-tailed Hawk down by the Big willow and Stones [Witmer’s nickname] got a shot but did not kill him.” Today’s “woods” are really just two thin strips on either side of wide, busy Belfield Ave., which is bordered by lawn areas. Interestingly, for “woods” that are much less than 100 yards across at some points, and less than 200 at their widest, it can be surprisingly tough going in places. I’ve had to clamber over downed trees and a congested understory, and at times it can feel more like clawing through a jungle deep in the Amazon than trying to take a stroll in a city park. It is – happily – one of the extremely few places in Philly where you can experience having your pedestrian progress severely hampered by thick, primitive forest conditions.

Here’s Wister Woods Park in a satellite photo (click for full resolution; yellow asterisk marks where Stone lived growing up, although the house has been demolished):

Wister Woods satellite

I found a fox den along the railroad tracks:


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Wister Woods