Monthly Archives: September 2015

Birthday Boy

IMG_9689On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union quasi-victory at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that on January 1, 1863, slaves would be declared emancipated in all Confederate states that were still at war with the Union. This is the second-most famous September 22nd in the nation’s history; the most famous, of course, came four years later when Witmer Stone was born to Anne and Frederick Stone in Philadelphia. The city’s black citizens held a parade every September 22nd for several years in celebration of the anniversary of Lincoln’s emancipation decree, and Stone later joked that the parade was held each year in honor of his birthday. While that’s not quite true, Philadelphia newspapers often noted the occasion (see photo).

There won’t be any parades today in Philadelphia for Witmer Stone or the Emancipation Proclamation – in fact, the city is entering full lockdown mode for a papal visit, and any parade floats would probably get towed – but us Witmer Stone Phans will, in our own quiet, Quaker, Witmer-like way, celebrate the 149th anniversary of the birth of our favorite ornithologist/botanist/author. So, as the WNSA boys would say, “Happy Birthday, Wit!”

September in Cape May − Part 1

Witmer Stone had a long summer at Cape May in 1921. He was still young enough (54) and healthy enough that he spent a lot of time afield, unlike Cape May summers later in his life. Witmer and wife Lillie stayed at 917 Queen Street in 1921, the only year they did so; the following year they rented 909 Queen and that was their Cape May summer HQ thereafter. Witmer was back and forth to Philadelphia all summer, returning to the city occasionally to catch up with things at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

On his last trip to Cape May that summer, a 10-day sojourn, he arrived by train on September 8. Stone often counted the kestrels seen on the telegraph wires between Dennisville and Cape May; that evening, looking out the train windows, he counted 40. Mid-September is about the time of highest numbers for kestrels in Cape May, as they are hitting the peak of their fall migration then. On the 14th, kestrels were everywhere west of the town, especially in the area of today’s South Cape May Meadows. Stone wrote in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM), “Swinging the glasses [i.e., binoculars] across the meadows I counted 65 kestrels perched on the wires besides many in the air, while on the broad sand flat back of South Cape May there were 35 resting on dead branches.” Kestrels have declined dramatically in the eastern North America in the past 20 years or so, and the numbers of loitering kestrels Stone had that day probably won’t be experienced by modern Cape May birders any time soon.

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Stone saw other raptors on his visit. On the 13th, he encountered a Sharp-shinned Hawk that “dropped what remained of his breakfast”; Stone retrieved it and found the skeleton of a warbler, picked clean. On the 16th, he found three young Bald Eagles soaring so close together over Cape May Point that he managed to get all of them into one binocular field of view.

Stone got in some shorebirds observations as well. He studied Greater and Lesser yellowlegs at the Lighthouse Pond. With his characteristic patience, he approached to within 10 feet of one of the Lessers, and stood motionless long enough for the Greater to land within 20 feet. I have noticed that when approaching shorebirds feeding along the ocean’s edge, the birds will flush when they find themselves “pinned” between me and the ocean, but if I pass them on the ocean side, they are less alarmed. Stone did the same with a flock of Sanderlings on the 15th, wading into the water to view the birds; in BSOCM, he recorded that “in this direct light they appeared to splendid advantage, their breasts gleaming like snow.”

Blackbirds (Red-wingeds, grackles, starlings, and cowbirds) on their way to the famed Physick estate Purple Martin roost stopped in the cornfield (yes, a cornfield in Cape May!) by the Stones’ cottage, and Witmer watched them feeding out his window. Early on the morning of the 15th, Stone found a flock of 1,000 grackles feeding half a block from the cottage, on the old Cape May golf course (now the Cape May City Elementary school), which “rolled up in a great sheet of birds onto the wires and trees on Lafayette Street.”

Fall migration was underway on Stone’s visit, and I’ll look at that in my next post.

September in Cape May − Part 2

During Witmer Stone’s September 8–18, 1921 trip to Cape May, fall migration was in full swing and birds were on the move. Stone had “first of the fall” appearances of some winter residents (Brown Creeper, Savannah Sparrow) and saw the last of some departing summer residents or fall migrants, including Short-billed Dowitcher, Piping Plover, Purple Martin, Least Flycatcher, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows. Hard as it is to believe today, the latter species bred in the Cape May area in Stone’s time; he mentions finding young ones just off the nest in the fields by Race Track Pond.

Tree Swallows were swarming at Cape May, with the birds “pouring over the country in all directions, as if belching forth from some enclosure of which the door had been suddenly opened.”

TRES swarmed

 

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Tree Swallows still swarm in some numbers in autumn today at Cape May, but another bird much reduced since Stone’s time is the Sora. The night before Stone’s arrival, a massive migratory movement of Soras resulted in so many striking the telegraph wires that farmers told him dead Soras were found “every few yards” along the road from Erma to Cape May. (Stone experienced a similar flight on the 16th.) As sad as that is to contemplate, it’s even sadder that today’s Sora numbers are so much lower that a “heavy” flight wouldn’t produce a catastrophe of anywhere near that magnitude.

Irruptive Red-breasted Nuthatches were having a “flight year” in 1921, and the pine woods by Lake Lily (now mostly built over) were thick with them. Stone’s excellent description in BSOCM of the behavior of one bird included “Alighting on the trunk of the next tree he goes round and round head down, creeping like a mouse; now he pauses to pry off a loose scale of bark, seeking some lurking insect hiding beneath, now he stops and daintily picks off a number of gray aphids from a bunch of pine needles and then is off to other feeding grounds.” Earl Poole’s drawing in BSOCM looks like it could be the very bird Stone described:

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There is a curious dearth of warbler records in BSOCM, and on this trip – at the height of the neotropical migrant migration – Stone recorded the only Bay-breasted and Cape May warblers of the fall (single birds), and two of the three Magnolia Warbler sightings. All three species – particularly the Magnolia – are commonly found in fall migration at Cape May Point today and must have been more common in 1921, indicating that Stone and his colleagues weren’t giving the warbler flights any real notice. The CMBO folks are giving the warblers and other migrants much closer attention today.

IMG_9696Cape May Warbler at Cape May

 

Eliot Underdown

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Witmer Stone never had any children, but he had a paternalistic influence on many young men who were members of the DVOC and the AOU. One colleague wrote that Stone’s “knowledge, wit, and kindliness made him beloved to the beginners and the seasoned ‘wheel horses’ alike.”

Eliot Underdown took a strong interest in birds in his youth, and in 1923, at the age of 16, he joined both the DVOC and the AOU. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked under Stone for two years in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ (ANSP) ornithology department before moving on to the Field Museum in Chicago. One of the more poignant moments in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature comes courtesy of a letter Underdown wrote to Stone from Chicago, thanking Stone for all he did to help Underdown in his ANSP days. Eliot also wrote that he followed the example set by Stone’s “modesty, and temperance of criticism of the work of others.” One gets a strong sense of the affection Underdown had for Stone, and of the effect that Stone’s kindly and patient personality had on the younger men fortunate enough to work with him.

Underdown was the son of Henry Underdown, DVOC treasurer for 32 years, and the cousin of another DVOC stalwart, the late Alan Brady. Eliot died too young, breaking short a promising ornithological career. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia; unfortunately, his grave is unmonumented.

In this photo of a DVOC outing from the late 1920s, Underdown is at center, facing right:

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