On this date 90 years ago (3/23/1925), Witmer Stone wrapped up a weekend trip to Cape May. He had finished off a note to T.S. Palmer on Friday, March 20th with “I am off to Cape May tonight to spend the weekend with Hand.” That referred, of course, to his great friend Walker Hand, described by Stone as “the ‘resident ornithologist’ of Cape May.” Hand was probably really more of a perceptive, knowledgeable outdoorsman than an “ornithologist,” but he and Stone taught each other a lot about birds over the years. In 1897, Hand built the house he lived in for the rest of his life at Washington St. & Madison Ave. in Cape May, now the “Inn at the Park” bed & breakfast:
In addition to an apparent influx of Field Sparrows that had wintered to the south, Stone had some Cape May “first of spring” sightings that weekend for Wilson’s Snipe (the same name as in Stone’s day, although there has been some nomenclatural flux in the interim), Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Chipping Sparrow, and a “last of spring” sighting of a Vesper Sparrow. Spring was certainly in the air: Robins were in full song, Song Sparrows were performing courtship flights, a male Red-winged Blackbird singing on the South Cape May marsh engaged in futile pursuit of two passing females, a Carolina Wren singing a “peculiar rolling song” had Stone uncertain what species he was hearing until he “caught sight of the singer in the act,” and a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage was preening on the oceanfront (Stone records that the grebe “fairly leaned over backward in the operation”).
Not everything in the air that weekend was spring-like and pleasant. Stone found a dozen Turkey Vultures on the Bayshore perched near the carcass of a hog that had been disposed of by a local farmer. The skeleton was surrounded by vulture footprints out to a distance of 30 feet, and the ground was “flecked with white downy feathers lost [by the vultures] in their contests for choice bits of carrion.” Another flock of 25 vultures was roosting at a pigsty by Pond Creek Meadows. Stone studied them at close range and noted that the ruff of feathers sticking up off the birds’ necks looked like “a rolled collar drawn over the head from behind like a sort of mantilla.” (How many times have you come across that word in the ornithological literature – or anywhere else?)
Vultures, porcine pleasantries, and all, it sounds like a nice, early spring weekend at the Cape. In 1921, after summering in Cape May for four years, Stone started making regular spring trips there. He probably often stayed with Hand, who, according to Stone, was largely unrecognized by his fellow townsmen for the “extent and soundness of his natural history knowledge and the esteem in which he was held by naturalists elsewhere.”