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.”

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