Monthly Archives: December 2015

Summating Sea Ducks Over the Endless Stretch of Tossing Waves

Shack Mahal
Clay Sutton (L) and Tom Reed (R) in front of the “Shack Mahal”; Steve and Cindy Brady inside.

I have visited the New Jersey Audubon Society’s (NJAS) Avalon Seawatch on several days this fall, and I’ve often thought that if we could bring Witmer Stone back and take him to the site, he’d be amazed at the number and variety of birds being counted there each year (as well as the modern optics that bring the typically distant sea birds into close enough view for identification – a far cry from Stone’s “opera glasses”). His musing in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM) on what I term the “anticipatory buzz” still resonates with “seabird-lovers” today:

“As one gazes out from shore over the endless stretch of tossing waves, it seems as if there must always be a chance of sighting something unusual, so great is the waste of waters, with apparently no barriers to hinder visitors from remote seas. And so it is that a view that may seem commonplace to one who sees it day after day is always fraught with possibilities to the bird-lover, and I never gaze upon the ocean without the feeling of expectancy. When one does catch a glimpse of a passing gull far out to sea, or a bunch of ducks or a flock of shore birds passing down the coast beyond the surf, the time that they are in sight is so very brief that we realize that had we been a moment later we should have missed them, and we cannot but consider how many, many sea birds the casual observer actually does miss, and what a small period his observations cover.”

 NJAS solves the “casual observer” problem by stationing a decidedly non-casual observer at the count site from sunup to sundown every day for the three months of autumn. (The count begins each year, coincidentally, on Stone’s birthday, September 22nd.) Although it’s impossible to stay fully focused for a whole day (especially with the distracting 5-star amenities of the newly-built “Shack Mahal”), or to detect each passing bird, the Seawatch counters (Skye Haas and Tom Reed for the past two seasons) do their best to see all those birds that a casual observer would indeed miss. The “chance of sighting something unusual” increases in proportion to time spent looking, so the counters do manage to find the occasional rarity or vagrant (or “a bird with some zip in it,” as Ludlow Griscom used to say). Everyone present was understandably smitten by this unusually cooperative Black-legged Kittiwake on Nov. 18:

IMG_0407ed

Loons, gannets, gulls, cormorants, and scoters comprise the bulk of the migrants, and on “moving” days they and assorted other coastal-migrating waterbirds hurtle past in a steady stream –  not faint passerine chips in the night, not soaring, hesitating, milling raptor specks in a blue sky mulling over a water crossing, but floodgates-are-open, look-at-‘em-go, right-in-front-of-your-face bird migration pageantry.

Here is Stone’s excellent BSOCM description of the characteristically ever expanding, contracting, rolling and tumbling scoter flocks:

“At the times of greatest abundance…we see Scoters from the beach passing constantly far out over the ocean, in long jet black lines, conspicuous against either sky or water. They literally ‘stream’ along over the surface like slender wisps of cloud or mist…Now one of these wisps seems to swell out in the middle as the birds gather more closely together, and then it thins out and lengthens, then once again the congestion develops at the head or rear of the column. Now there are little knots formed at several points along the stream or perhaps it breaks up into small ‘clouds’ which later drift together and form again the long slender line. The formation is ever changing but the streams of birds are always pushing steadily ahead as if driven by some unseen power behind them. Now and then a flock will rise twenty feet or more above the surface of the water and then drift down again low over the waves.”

ASW_Oct2013_scoters5

Sometimes the scoters get so low they momentarily disappear from view; that and the flocks’ continually changing formations make things tough on our counters – nothing like counting partway through a large flock when it’s suddenly swallowed up in a trough, or one section of it rolls over another, making for a muddled mess of counted and uncounted birds. On a strong flight day, the observers may get tired of enumerating every skedaddling scoter skein (each one usually a mix of difficult-to-differentiate Black and Surf scoters), but like true seawatch aficionados they never tire of witnessing the spectacle of flock after flock wheeling in from the north and pouring past on their way down the coast:

Scoters-2

Gannets move in great numbers in November and December, with their characteristic “rising and falling flight,” as Stone described it (or “sewing the ocean,” in the words of the late Kathryn Balme):

NOGAed

In Stone’s day, the magnitude of the fall gannet flight went undetected: his records of a few flights of 100–200 birds by a handful of observers – including Julian Potter and Charles Urner, prototypes of the modern, gung-ho birding fiend – were only faint intimations of what was going on offshore beyond the range of the optics or the ken of the birdwatchers of that time. Potter’s November 1931 count of 600 Red-throated Loons in an hour, however, is similar in magnitude to a heavy flight today, when a daily count can run into the thousands. Sometime the loons pass singly and low to the water, at other times higher up in loose flocks of dozens:

RTLO

Considering the dependability and size of the Avalon Seawatch flights, it’s remarkable how few birders visit the site compared to Cape May south-of-the-canal hotspots, but I have no doubt that if Witmer Stone were to suddenly come tumbling out of a time machine, plopping down in front of the Shack Mahal to the astonishment of the counters, it would only take a few looks at loons and ganders at gannets through today’s crystal clear optics and he’d be a Seawatch regular in no time.

Seawatch

–Many thanks to Tom Reed for the photos that so nicely capture the flock shapes and flight behavior.

The Remarkable Human Phenomenon

Curtiss

Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature is a book full of interesting (and decided) characters – none more so than Brooklyn-born Roy Curtiss, who, when he was only 11 years old, was described by AMNH ornithologist Frank Chapman as “the most remarkable human phenomenon who has ever entered our gates.” As I wrote in Fascination, “The enigmatic Curtiss was precocious, if he was anything: he was reportedly reading and writing at age three, attended his first AOU meeting when he was nine, and taught himself Latin in order to read Linnaeus’s original writings in that language.”

Chapman’s “phenomenon” comment was in reply to a query from Stone, after Curtiss had sent Stone several rambling letters with his opinions on the state on American ornithological taxonomy. Stone, who correctly suspected he was dealing with a child with limited knowledge about the subject, told Chapman that Curtiss proposed “overturning the names of nearly all our birds.”

Stone was also unimpressed with Curtiss’s privately published book (at age 13) on the fauna of New England, declining to review it in The Auk, but he must have been impressed (or possibly– and typically – “astonished”) by the title: An Account of the Natural History of New England and of Nova Scotia and Lower Canada of the Islands of the Coasts Between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of New York; of the Mountains Wherein the Hudson Rises; and All Eastward As Far As the Bay of Massachusetts; In So Far As It Applies to Beasts, Birds, Reptiles, Whales, Fresh and Salt Water Fish and Shellfish, Worms, Insects and Pests.  Well, that about covers it.

Neal Evenhuis of the Hawaii Biological Survey wrote an outstanding, well-researched biographical article on Curtiss starting on p. 13 here.  The article contains the photo accompanying this post of a young Curtiss, looking intently serious about something. If he was contemplating all the future natural history discoveries he was going to make, they were not forthcoming. After such a promising beginning, Curtiss, who was born into wealth, spent his life traveling the world and contributing little of importance to the natural sciences.

My “Christ among the doctors” comment in the book about Curtiss’s early days, when his elders were amazed at his scientific interest, references the account in Luke‘s gospel where the 12-year-old Jesus amazed the elders in the temple at Jerusalem with his knowledge of the Scriptures. Over the years, several artists have depicted the Biblical incident (often referred to as “Christ Among the Doctors”), including 16th-century Italian painter Paolo Veronese:

Christ among