Monthly Archives: August 2015

A Historic Date in Cape May History

On this day 125 years ago (8/23/1890), a 23-year old Witmer Stone visited Cape May, New Jersey for the first time. Not much is known about that first trip. His father was with him; I don’t  know if any other family members were along. He makes only a few references to it in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM): he notes the great decrease in Marsh Wrens and Seaside Sparrows since his 1890 visit, but also the increase in shorebirds, which were hunted with impunity and great barbarity in his early Cape days.

Of his second trip, in July and August of 1891, we know much more, for Stone wrote a lengthy description of it which he read to the DVOC at a November 1891 meeting. That essay is the first record we have of the autumn migration spectacle at Cape May Point. Stone quoted William Brewster’s observations from Pt. Lepreau, New Brunswick, where migrating birds often get congested at the tip of the peninsula. Stone said, “Now I have always imagined that the same occurrence might be noticed at the southern extremity of New Jersey…”

Brewster’s paper that mentioned Pt. Lepreau was published in 1886, so at some point in the interval it occurred to Stone to get to Cape May Point and look for evidence of similar flights there. He ran into just such a flight on August 26, 1891, when Eastern Kingbirds (more than Stone had seen in total in his life) along with towhees, wood pewees, robins, Cedar Waxwings, Brown Thrashers, Veeries, and warblers were swarming at the Point, just as they do today in late August.

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Eastern Kingbird in Higbee’s dunes

Stone inspired other DVOC members to start taking bird trips to Cape May, and he was an annual summer resident there beginning in 1916. He published several short notes in The Auk in the 1920s, calling attention to some Cape May rarities, as well as the horrific autumn hawk shoots.

In 1926, Stone published “Past and Present Bird Life of the New Jersey Coast” in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ Year Book, and a resultant Philadelphia Public Ledger newspaper article – quoting the Year Book essay, with additional comments by Stone about his ongoing Cape May studies – was reprinted by many newspapers around the country (click to zoom):

CM newspaper article 1926

Of course, Stone really put the fall migration at Cape May Point permanently on the map with the publication of BSOCM in 1937. It’s been reprinted twice since then, and not only still serves as a reference point for the Cape May avifauna in the early 1900s, but continues to be read for the high literary quality and the “delightful word pictures,” as a fellow ornithologist called them, of the Cape May area, its scenery, and bird life.

A few months before BSOCM was published, Stone appeared in another Philly newspaper article about Cape May birds. At the end of it, he told the reporter about the new Witmer Stone Wild Life Sanctuary at Cape May Point (now part of the Higbee’s Beach WMA): “In September and October these thickets are jammed with woodpeckers, kingbirds, hawks, robins and woodcocks till it looks like the subway rush hour. You must come back then.” Here is a photo from the article of Stone holding up a dead shark for some local boys to gawk at:

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Today, people from all over the country (and from many other countries) visit Cape May Point to see the autumn migration spectacle, and on days with northwest winds the birds still pile up “till it looks like the subway rush hour.” It’s an annual multi-million dollar windfall for the area hospitality industry, and it has inspired the preservation of thousands of acres of natural areas in Cape May County. Cape May Point in the fall is the only place I know of where people walking around without binoculars are the weirdos.

And it all started 125 years ago today, when a young Witmer Stone first visited Cape May Point with a hunch that it might just be a place to find birds concentrated during the fall migration. After his observations there in 1891, he announced to the DVOC, with understatement that is comical to contemplate from our vantage point in time, “I think an observer stationed at Cape May Point could not fail to have some most valuable experiences during the migratory seasons.”

Catoxen Cabin

Some previous posts have mentioned Catoxen Cabin near Medford, New Jersey, built by Witmer Stone and a few friends in 1899, when the area was still rural. Stone once described typical visits to the cabin: “Here it was possible to live the life of the back woods whenever a day or two could be spared from the activities of business; when trees could be felled, meals cooked over the camp fire, a little game obtained, bird lists made up, or the wild creatures of the woods tracked in the winter’s snow.”

I found some references to Catoxen in Stone’s correspondence, and knew approximately where the cabin had been, but I assumed it was long gone. I made a few inquiries to local historical societies to see if anyone knew anything about its location. Fortunately one of them passed my query along to the inquisitive and tenacious Janet Jackson-Gould, and I was astonished to get an email from her telling me that the cabin was still standing, 112 years later! It’s part of Camp Dark Waters, a Quaker camp for kids, just across the Rancocas Creek from the Medford Leas retirement community. Here are some cabin photos from 100+ years ago alongside recent ones (that’s Witmer with ax, and wife Lillie in center in first photo):

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In 1914, Stone and the other owners worked a long, tiring day putting a new roof on the cabin, and if one of them had quipped then that the cabin looked like she could last another 100 years, there probably would have been some guffaws. Yet despite almost 90 years of continuous use by rowdy teenage boys in the interim, Catoxen remains upright. Architect and DVOC founding member George Spencer Morris “designed” the cabin (to the extent that such a small structure needs “designing”), and you have to think that some combination of his architectural acumen, the fellows’ carpentry skills, and the quality of the building materials used is the reason the place is still there. Kudos to Camp Dark Waters for taking such good care of this historic cabin − and “living” link to Witmer Stone −  for so many years!

You can visit the DVOC website to read the Morris and Stone Cassinia articles on Catoxen cabin.

 

Mrs. Fisher’s Frigatebird

On this day 89 years ago (8/3/1926), a few days after the passage of the Nassau Hurricane, Muriel Fisher of Germantown, Pa., spotted an unusual bird kiting over the boardwalk at Cape May. She couldn’t find the bird in any books, and eventually sent a description of it to Witmer Stone. He immediately realized she’d seen a “Man-o’-war-bird,” now known as a Magnificent Frigatebird. (Frigatebird species are very difficult to differentiate in the field, but the Magnificent is the most likely species in New Jersey.) There had been an undocumented New Jersey record of a frigatebird from the 1870s, but Fisher’s was the first documented one. The bird, resident in the tropics, had doubtless been blown north of its usual neighborhood by the hurricane.

The sighting has had its doubters over the years; one recent author thought the description in Bird Studies at Old Cape May was “unconvincing.” (Stone had also written up the sighting in The Auk at the time he got Fisher’s letter in 1928.) Stone’s Auk and BSOCM descriptions, however, couldn’t practicably include three little sketches in Mrs. Fisher’s letter which, taken together, push the sighting a whole lot closer to “convincing.” Here are her sketches of the flight profile, beak, and tail shape from her letter to Stone:

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Compare them with this excellent Greg Lavaty photograph that shows all three of the field characters depicted by Fisher:

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Years later, Fisher wrote to ask Stone’s opinion of a bird that had nested in Cape May the previous summer. A friend had identified it as a mockingbird (and from her description it clearly was), but Fisher, although admitting to short-sightedness, thought the bird must be a magpie. So she certainly wasn’t a particularly knowledgeable or experienced “birder,” but I’d make the case that her frigatebird notes were friggin’ convincing, and that hers should be considered the first credible New Jersey record of this tropical wanderer.