All posts by Scott McConnell

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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A Stone Bibliography

A few people have asked me why I didn’t include a bibliography of Stone’s publications in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. I had many reasons for that decision, one being the availability of such information on the Internet. There are a few ways to find his publications online, but I found the best one so far recently on the German Wikipedia site. It’s not only nearly exhaustive, but also contains links to many of the articles. Many kudos to the German Wiki authors for doing so much work to provide a great reference!

Tabasco Ned and The Mysterious Vulture Citation

One of the little unsolved ornithological mystery gems I came across in my research for The Fascination of Nature had at its core one of the book’s real “characters”: the never-boring, serial truth-bender Edward “Ned” McIlhenny, heir to the still-extant (and still in the family) Tabasco sauce company. McIlhenny got very chummy with Stone in the 1930s, even paying the expenses of a trip Witmer and Lillie took to McIlhenny’s Louisiana estate in 1935. He was simultaneously sending articles to Stone for publication in The Auk, some of which, as detailed in my book, contained bogus material. McIlenny claimed in a 1937 Auk article that he had trapped and banded a Turkey Vulture x Black Vulture hybrid in Louisiana, and had sent the bird (alive) to Frederick C. Lincoln at the U.S. Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) in Washington, D.C. This would be the only known instance of hybridization between the two species, if only it were true.

In Ralph S. Palmer’s excellent (if underappreciated) Handbook of North American Birds (Palmer was editor, and authored some of the accounts), the Turkey Vulture account states that the “hybrid” actually proved to be a Black Vulture with red paint applied to its head! Maybe it looked like this:

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The assertion of the hoax was cited simply “(E.P. Walker).” The Turkey Vulture account was written by Dr. Jerome Jackson, so I contacted him to get more info on his Walker citation. Dr. Jackson replied that the sentence about the hoax was an editorial insertion by Palmer (who passed away in 2003), and that he knew no more about the Walker citation than I did. He shared that Palmer had a card file (remember them?) for each species, and would sometimes pull info from the cards and insert them into the accounts, with limited documentation.

Some further recent research enabled me to get the picture about as clear as I guess we’re going to get it. According to another 1937 article he wrote, McIlhenny’s “hybrid” ended up at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.  “E.P. Walker” is undoubtedly Ernest Pillsbury Walker, who was assistant director at the zoo at that time, and presumably discovered, or heard of, the duplicitous paint job. At some point, Walker must have shared the painted vulture story with Palmer, who diligently added the info to his card file.

Bottom line: if a birder today thinks they’ve found the first-ever hybrid between a Turkey and Black Vulture, because they saw a bird that looked like a Black Vulture with a red head, a simple digital photo won’t do. They’ll have to capture the bird and try a little paint thinner on the head to make sure someone else out there isn’t up to Tabasco Ned’s old tricks.

Happy 150th!

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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the star of this website. But for that fortuitous occasion, the Academy of Natural Sciences would have seen their historic bird collection reduced to dust and feathers; modern botanists would give anything to know what was growing in the New Jersey Pine Barrens 100 years ago; and modern birders would think “old Cape May” referred to 1975, right before birds were discovered migrating through Cape May Point. So as we, in our astonishment, contemplate Plants of Southern New Jersey, Bird Studies at Old Cape May, and all the insights, delightful word pictures, mirth and merriment, and the many other ways our lives have been enriched by what the stork (fittingly) delivered to Anne and Frederick Stone a long time ago on this date, let’s pop a cork and thank our lucky stars that the modern Stone Age hits 150 today.

Germantown Academy Days

I am delighted to have an article about Witmer Stone’s Germantown days appearing in the current issue of the Germantown Historical Society’s journal The Crier. It’s an edited excerpt of passages from The Fascination of Nature, with some new material, including this about Germantown Academy (GA), Stone’s alma mater:

“Stone gave the commencement address at GA in 1935 and shared some recollections of his schoolboy days. Due to overcrowding, the school sat some of the boys at double-desks, instead of the usual single ones. Stone ended up having to share one with a younger boy named George Patterson, who continually encroached onto Stone’s half of the desk. Patterson later went on to international fame as a cricket player. There was an orchard adjacent to the schoolyard, and Stone said it was remarkable how many times the soccer ball was ‘accidentally’ kicked over the orchard fence when the apples were ripe. The school’s gymnasium was located in the attic, where the sloping roof prevented the students from attempting any overly ambitious athletic maneuvers on the rings or bars. The boys waggishly gave one teacher, Frank Fretz, the nickname ‘Father Fretz’ from his habit of addressing every student as ‘my son.’ The young scholars had to memorize the list of U.S. presidents in order; years later, thanks to the rote learning, Stone could still easily remember all of them through Rutherford B. Hayes (in office during Stone’s GA days), but had to stop and think to recall the ones since then.”

GA was, of course, actually in Germantown in Stone’s day; it moved to its current location in Ft. Washington in 1965. The old campus, with buildings dating from Stone’s time, is now occupied by the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf:

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The GA historical collection doesn’t contain any photos of Stone’s 1883 graduating class, but it does have one of his younger brother Frederick’s 1889 class, which included future University of Pennsylvania president Thomas S. Gates, and future Bird Studies at Old Cape May illustrator Herbert Brown, one of the Brown brothers with whom the Stone boys were great friends:

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Witmer delivered guest lectures about natural history at his alma mater in the 1890s, sparking a lifelong interest in ornithology in at least one of the students, and he always had a soft spot for his GA days. On a visit to the school grounds in April 2015, I could almost envision Stone and his classmates out on lunch recess, boisterously bantering, running and chasing, with the old soccer ball flying repeatedly into the orchard.

Alex and Alas for the Wilson Tablet

One of the many interesting little stories I stumbled across during research for the Stone bio was the ill-fated Alexander Wilson tablet – a project begun with the best of intentions, but which literally fell by the wayside. J. Lawson Cameron, Philadelphia physician and a member of the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia  (a Scottish heritage organization) left in his will the funds for a tablet to be erected at the Academy of Natural Sciences in memory of the pioneering American ornithologist (1766–1813), a hero of Stone’s who is buried in Old Swedes’ Church in Philly:

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Cameron was a native of Paisley, the same Scotch town from which Wilson hailed. After Cameron’s death in late 1922, the Academy accepted the Society’s offer of the tablet, to be designed and sculpted by University of Pennsylvania professor R. Tait McKenzie. The tablet was made, and installed by the Academy entrance on May 17, 1923 in a ceremony attended by many people including Stone and American Ornithologists’ Union secretary T.S. Palmer.

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A few weeks after the event, someone noticed that the death year for Wilson on the tablet was mistakenly recorded as 1833 instead of 1813. The birth and death years were written in Roman numerals, presumably for artistic effect, and someone added two too many X’s to the latter − graciously giving Wilson an extra 20 years on his life, but too late for him to cash them in.

Stone had – along with everyone else – overlooked the incorrect date; when he heard of it, he asked Palmer, “Where were our eyes? The sculptor killed Alexander Wilson in 1833 instead of 1813!!” I think the photo offers a hint about the mix-up: note the overlapping “D” and “C” in the death date, as if the sculptor ran out of room and had to squeeze the numerals together. I can almost hear him saying, “The dates were perfectly spaced when I laid the thing out. What happened?” Well, what happened was that somewhere between design and sculpting you got the date mixed up and added two X’s to the numeral, so the only way to squeeze it in was to overlap the D & C. The correct date would have two less X’s and would fit the space perfectly, just like you designed it.

Alex and alas, Academy records indicate that by the late 1950s, the tablet was being stored under a stairwell; when I last saw it in 2013, the thick, heavy slab was leaning against a wall in the ornithology department, and visitors who notice it there are doubtless unaware of the sad tale of admirable commemorative intent and Roman numeral bedevilment that it represents. Maybe if McKenzie had just stuck with Arabic numerals???

“Some Light on Night Migration” Hits 110

Spring migration is really ratcheting up at this time of year. Witmer Stone was always interested in bird migration, and, as I described in The Fascination of Nature, he once took advantage of a unique opportunity to observe nocturnal migrants in action. Many birds migrate at night; it’s thought that the associated cooler temperatures and lower turbulence facilitate body temperature regulation and make for smoother flying conditions. Nocturnal migrants can be heard calling on spring and autumn nights as they pass overhead, and can be spotted with a scope trained on the moon, but on March 27, 1906, a huge fire at a Philadelphia lumberyard lit up the sky so brilliantly that migrating birds could be seen flying in the glow of the conflagration. Stone wrote all about it in The Auk, and if you want to read about the remarkable event, with some wonderfully descriptive writing that foreshadows Bird Studies at Old Cape May, click here.

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Stone, like hundreds of others, went to see the fire (a 3.5 mile walk round-trip from his Regent Street home), but soon noticed the migrants. When the flight was heaviest, he estimated that 200 birds were in view at any moment, and some that were flying too low actually caught fire and went down in flames. A Sharp-shinned Hawk soared around overhead, attracted by the commotion.

The venerable ornithologist William Brewster wrote to Stone that his Auk effort was “one of the most interesting and best written articles on birds that I have ever read.” Stone was undoubtedly thrilled to receive the commendatory letter from an elder ornithologist for whom he had boundless respect, but it probably took him as much work as it took me to decipher Brewster’s illegible scrawl (and now you can see one of the reasons it can take someone five years to write a book about a dead birdwatcher):

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Stone didn’t mention the name of the lumberyard, saying only that it was located in West Philly, near Bartram’s Garden. That set off a few bells in my head, because that was the approximate location of the McIlvain’s lumberyard, where my maternal grandfather worked for decades. When he died, I inherited a book published by the company in 1947 to celebrate 250 years in business, Philadelphia Hardwood, 1798-1948: The Story of the McIlvains of Philadelphia and the Business They Founded. I looked in the book, and there it was: an account of the 1906 fire that burned the place to the ground. The passage even included an image of a newspaper cover from the next day:

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Here’s my Grandfather Irwin (on the right) working at McIlvain’s:

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I’m sure my grandfather heard about the big fire that happened not too long before he started working at McIlvain’s. Little did he suspect the interest it would hold some day for that crazy grandson of his – the nutty one who was always running around looking at birds.

Some Good-natured Fun in The Auklet

The American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) has occasionally, at the time of its annual meeting,  published a short satirical parody of The Auk titled The Auklet. It’s done simply to lend a bit of levity to the otherwise dry proceedings. Joseph Grinnell described the number produced for the 1924 AOU meeting held, for the first time, in Pittsburgh, saying that it “holds up for good-natured ridicule various persons, institutions and ornithological movements, past and present…It is altogether impartial and…so far as known to the present writer, no one has ever taken offense at any thrust received.” The Pittsburgh meeting probably needed some good-natured fun: one attendee referred to the place as “a God-forsaken hole”; Witmer Stone was a little gentler, calling it “the Smoky City,” which seems like an understatement based on this photo from about that time:

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Stone came in for his share of ribbing in The Auklet, mostly about his supposed girl-watching on the Cape May beaches. A fellow ornithologist once kidded Stone with “Yes, you have been very remiss, watching these Cape May bathing beauties all summer and not telling us about them; almost as silent as George Ord and Alexander Wilson, and other former Cape May visitors.” Here are Stone and T.S. Palmer taking their licks in the 1926 Auklet:

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Ten years later, Stone was still getting it about pretending to be engaged in ornithology on the Cape May beaches while actually training his binoculars on the “surf-birds” (“W. Pebble” is an obvious play on “W. Stone”):

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Maybe no one had “taken offense at any thrust received” when Grinnell wrote in 1924, but by the early 1930s some members who’d had their feathers ruffled by some thrusts wanted to discontinue The Auklet, and there were grumblings to that effect. Stone had no reservations about letting the effort expire, but mainly due to what he felt was a falling off in the quality of the humor. The Auklet has been seen sporadically since then, however, and it still makes infrequent appearances at the annual AOU meetings.

They Just Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore – Part Two

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Another example of “writing like they used to,” found in one of the books from Witmer Stone’s personal library, is a passage in H.E. Parkhurst’s 1897 book Song Birds and Water Fowl. In the chapter “At the Water’s Edge,” Parkhurst recommends watching the antics of gulls (like the Iceland Gull above) on a winter day at the beach: “The spectator can no more tire of watching the graceful and gigantic scrolls that they inscribe upon the air, or their languishing passage over the sea, than he can weary of the ocean’s ceaseless roll, whose deep incessant undertones are an apt accompaniment for these noble airy beings in their diverting and untiring exhibitions; beings formed, as one might imagine, from the waves’ foamy crests, mysteriously winged and vitalized – the offspring of the sea, and mantled by the sky.”

IMG_2701edIt seems we don’t even think like that anymore, let alone write like that. A description of gulls that includes the musing that they seem to have sprang to life, miraculously animated, from the wave crests and mists over which they fly? Don’t look for any such sentiments in the next article you read about somebody’s “Big Year,” or in any social media gushings about the latest vagrant being ogled by the twitching masses.

Stone’s Restaurant

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Last weekend ended yet another Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season. Witmer Stone participated in the very first CBC in 1900; beginning in the 1920s, he was a regular participant in the Cape May CBC, along with his great friend Otway Brown. Just like today, the participants had a “roundup” at the end of the day when they’d get together and combine their lists. Reflecting in Bird Studies at Old Cape May on his “delightful association with men of kindred interests,” Stone gave us a great description of the CBC roundup: “And there have been those gatherings for dinner at the Cape May Court House at the close of the Christmas Census, with one party after another coming in half frozen from boats on the sounds and the Bay, or from stations out on the end of the jetty, or on remote ponds and in dense woodlands, to prepare their combined report.”

I wondered for years just where they all gathered, and during my research I stumbled across the answer in a 1934 letter from Stone to Muriel Fisher, the woman who saw New Jersey’s first frigatebird. Telling Fisher about some recent birding outings, Stone wrote, “At the time of the Christmas Census the DVOC made the usual trip to the Cape May district and 24 men had dinner at Stone’s Restaurant in Court House (no relative of mine!) and made up their combined list, which totaled 93 this time.”

Since reading that letter, I’ve wondered where Stone’s Restaurant was located. It clearly was no longer extant, but I couldn’t find anything online about its location or history. Thanks to Sonia Forry and Bud Corson at The Museum of Cape May County, I now know it was in this building (see photo) on Main Street (Route 9) in Cape May Court House, since altered and home to a barber shop and a bail bond service. The house behind the shops is the old Stone family house. With a restaurant this small, 24 men would have about filled it right up!

If these walls could talk, they’d have a lot of great stories to tell, about DVOC Cape May CBC roundups and many other things. One classic would be from the Dec. 27, 1936 CBC roundup, when 16-year-old Alan Brady, later a DVOC legend himself, approached compiler Witmer Stone sitting in one of the restaurant’s booths to report that he had seen a Merlin earlier in the day. Stone, doubtless with twinkling eyes and a kindly smile, said, “Alan, we don’t see Merlins on the Christmas count,” and, as Alan recounted years later, “that was the end of that.” Those of us who knew Alan could advise that Stone didn’t even know who he was messin’ with.

Bud Corson has graciously provided some firsthand reminiscences about Stone’s Restaurant, which can be accessed with the link below. I’m guessing that most of the DVOC men were “pie” guys.  :)

Bud Corson remembers Stone’s Restaurant