Witmer Stone is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, also the final resting place of fellow Academy ornithologists John Cassin and Eliot Underdown.
I visited on April 25, a glorious spring day, and am pleased to report that Witmer reposes in a spot that does not lack for ornithological interest. Twittering Rough-winged Swallows (later seen investigating potential nest sites in a cemetery retaining wall) and Chimney Swifts swooped low over the Stone family plot, hawking insects. Some lingering Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows would soon be continuing on their way north, and a handful of Yellow-rumped Warblers were the vanguard of a warbler pageant that will soon be taking place in the cemetery’s lovely old oaks and conifers.
Raptors were the stars of the show. A Red-tailed Hawk soaring near Stone’s grave probably has a mate with a nest nearby:
A pair of adult Bald Eagles was also soaring over the cemetery, on their way to and from who-knows-where:
Particularly interesting was a male Kestrel that turned a statue into an unwitting falconer:
The same or another male was later perched on one of the almost unlimited number of “kestrel perches” in Laurel Hill:
There is an obvious abundance of perches for these birds in a cemetery, but what they are finding to prey on in April is not so obvious to me. This guy was certainly too big for them to tackle:
The clucking Robins attendant at each Kestrel sighting suggests what these small falcons will be feeding on in a few weeks when the cemetery starts filling up with plump, clueless young Robins just off the nest. The Kestrels may well be nesting in a hollow in a cemetery tree, or in a nook or cranny in one of the many adjacent factory buildings.
Whether your interest is birding, history, dendrology, or simply an appreciation for a lovely spot out-of-doors, a trip to Laurel Hill Cemetery will fill the bill splendidly. Don’t forget to stop and pay your respects to Witmer and his kin over in Section P. There is also an overlook on the west side of the cemetery that takes in a long stretch of the Schuylkill River, and is one of the most spectacular vistas in Philadelphia. Here’s the view to the south, with Memorial Hall (built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition) in the distance:
One of the things that piqued my interest most strongly during research for Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature was the discovery that Stone’s college class, the University of Pennsylvania (UP) Class of 1887, in a thoughtful and forward-thinking gesture, left a loving cup to be presented to the Class of 1987 at its graduation. The cup was eventually inscribed with the names of the class presidents for 30 years, going back to their undergrad days. (The class selected a new slate of officers each year or two after graduation.)
Description of cup from Class of ’87 scrap books, which were prepared by Stone. (That’s his writing at the top.)
A 1901 article at the time the cup was first purchased mentioned that it was left for safekeeping in Houston Hall, UP’s historic (first in America) student union building. After that, plans seem to have gotten a little sketchier. A newspaper account of a 1914 class reunion reported that “the last living member of the class will deposit the cup with a trust company as a bequest to the class of 1987.” The potential complications and uncertainties of that arrangement are obvious. The waters really get muddy in a 1920 letter to class secretary Stone, informing him that one of the class members was taking “the ’87 loving cup home to Pittsburgh with him.” Assuming that referred to the cup being held for the Class of 1987, it introduces a lot of mystery to the story line.
Not surprisingly, the cup seems to have gotten lost on its way to the 1987 commencement. Class of 1987 officers that I contacted had never heard of it. I was silly enough to walk all around Houston Hall one day looking for it in the display cases sprinkled throughout the building, and I futilely investigated a few other dead ends at UP. The range of possibilities for the fate of the cup would include being put out with the university trash in 1947 to residing today in an attic in Indiana. For me, it’s become the holy grail of Stone-related relics. If it ever miraculously turns up, I think the best thing to do would be to put it in a safe, secure place for presentation to the UP Class of 2087 at their commencement.
I had an article published in today’s Cape May Star and Wave about Otway Brown – noted Cape May naturalist, as well as Stone’s partner for the Christmas Bird Count and the Cape May Flower Show. A row of Eastern Red Cedars, planted in Brown’s memory in 1948, are still growing along Madison Avenue in Cape May. Many kudos to CMS&W for having the interest in the town’s history to publish the article. Click to open image (click a second time to open full size):
93 years ago today, Witmer Stone headed off for a weekend at Cape May. He stayed with Walker Hand and did at least some of his birding that weekend with his old Cape May friend. It was early spring, and some winter resident birds were still lingering: Common Loons, a flock of 20 Bonaparte’s Gulls near the Coast Guard Station at Cape May Point (CMP), five snipe flushed on a later afternoon walk, and a sapsucker visiting its borings in a hickory stand at CMP. Stone and Hand cornered a Horned Grebe in shallow water on a branch of Cape Island Creek. They expected the bird to take flight to escape; to Stone’s “amazement, however, it suddenly dived into the mud and shallow water,” slipping past them into deeper water. Stone also studied a Pied-billed Grebe on the inner Harbor at close quarters while he “remained concealed” – one of many times in BSOCM that we find Stone hiding behind vegetation or a structure, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, to get a close look at a bird in the days when birding optics were not of the present caliber.
Spring was in the air, and Stone had some “first of spring” sightings of Pine Warbler (6 males feeding on the ground in an old field next to some pines, turning over leaves in their quest for insects), Green Heron, Piping Plover (6 birds on the Cape May beach), and Chipping and Field Sparrows. A pair of kingfishers cavorting over Lake Lily flew low over the water with stiff, spasmodic wingbeats, “the effect being of a body bouncing up and down on an elastic surface.” Birds were also on the move. Thousands of scoters were streaming down the coast, around CMP, and up the Bay. At the Fill – the part of town (now built over) where silt from the Harbor dredging had been deposited, and which had gone from grassland to shrubland in Stone’s time – a silent flock of Robins passed over, heading north, and 25 Flickers feeding in a burnt-over area there probably indicated a recent influx of migrants. Also on the Fill, Stone and Hand flushed a flock of 67 Black Ducks and two Blue-winged Teal which all took off together from a shallow pool of water and headed in the direction of Jarvis Sound to the north.
Stone had some nice raptor sightings that weekend as well. He said that most wintering Cooper’s Hawks were probably shot, making them scarcer as the season advanced, but he found one in a yard on Washington Street “gliding about among the trees to the consternation of the Grackles which were feeding there.” He also saw a Bald Eagle on the wing, struggling to hold its position against a strong northwest wind.