Monthly Archives: September 2017

Witmer and the Winging Waterthrush

As I discussed in The Fascination of Nature, Witmer Stone and the Audubon Society wardens, although clearly aware of the phenomenon, apparently didn’t spend much time studying the neotropical migrant flights through Cape May Point. That’s not the case today, when the Cape May Bird Observatory monitors  the flights every day from mid-August to the end of October from atop the bayside dike in the Higbee’s Beach Wildlife Management Area. Stone would doubtless be “astonished” at the skills of today’s observers, and the numbers of migrants they count (although the flights were certainly larger in Stone’s day, if he’d been paying more attention to them).

Tom Johnson is one of the outstanding young birders who monitors today’s flights; his ability to differentiate the similar-sounding, buzzy call notes and the subtle field marks of the migrants zipping past (most of the birds are identified in flight), and to also take field-guide quality photos of them, leaves visitors shaking their heads. Tom recently mentioned to me that he was impressed by Stone’s Bird Studies at Old Cape May description of Northern Waterthrush flight behavior: “The Northern Waterthrush can be readily identified when flying in the open. Not only is it darker and apparently blacker than any other small bird seen against the sky or the meadows, but its flight is characteristic. The body is long and slender and the long swoops between the series of short wingbeats produce a diving, somewhat undulatory movement, but more irregular and less pronounced than that of the Goldfinch.”

Tom thinks it’s remarkable that while today’s dike counts, and the counters’ ever-increasing knowledge of flight calls and on-the-wing field marks, are considered cutting edge research, Witmer Stone had started in on such observations 80 years ago. It makes you think that if we could bring Stone back and put him up on the Higbee’s dike some fall morning with westerly winds blowing, hand him a pair of modern optics, get him a little coaching from Tom et al., old Witmer would soon be getting the hang of identifying the whizzing wood warblers. Thanks to Tom for his insights, and for sending along two of his typically outstanding photos of Northern Waterthrushes in flight taken from the Higbee’s dike:

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