All posts by Scott McConnell

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:

Wilson grave

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

They Just Don’t Write ‘Em Like That Anymore

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Birders are familiar with the sight of a perched Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a flock of crows. If the owl sits tight, the crows eventually tire of screaming invective and, one at a time, drift off to find mischief elsewhere. However, if for some reason the owl flies – for example, if a curious birdwatcher stumbles onto the scene trying to find out what all the fuss is about and gets too close for the owl’s comfort – the crows immediately renew their attack with full-throated vehemence. Once the owl lands, if it sits placidly again, the crows gradually move off. That’s my dry, factual description of the commonly encountered event.

I found a much more interesting rendition of it in one of the old books from Witmer Stone’s personal library. Perley Milton (“P.M.”) Silloway, in his 1897 book Sketches of Some Common Birds, described the crows mobbing a hapless owl, then wrote, “At length, having exhausted the corvine vocabulary of epithets and scurrility, and being tired of deriding that which, like Diogenes, would not be derided, one by one the crows would abandon the siege and seek less stoical victims, or less monotonous amusement.” You can look through all the latest bird-related books, listservs, and social media posts you want, and you’ll never come across a sentence containing the likes of “corvine vocabulary of epithets,” or “scurrility,” or a reference to a Greek philosopher who was an influence on the early Stoics.

Summating Sea Ducks Over the Endless Stretch of Tossing Waves

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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:

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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.”

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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:

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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):

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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:

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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.

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

The Remarkable Human Phenomenon

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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:

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Witmer Stone’s Personal Library

We all splurge a little sometimes on something that has a value to us beyond that of a strictly pecuniary consideration. I did that recently and am now the happy (if slightly more impoverished) owner of 10 books that used to be part of Witmer Stone’s private library. The tale of Stone’s library is a woeful one. It reportedly consisted of 2,500 books, hundreds of journal sets, and thousands of author offprints (or “separata”). Here is a 1938 newspaper photo of Stone at his Germantown home in front of a portion of his library (with shelves built by him), reading Bird Studies at Old Cape May:

IMG_5001edAfter Stone died, his widow, Lillie, wanted to sell the library intact. It was eventually purchased by the Reading Public Museum (RPM), whose director, Earl L Poole, was an old friend of Stone’s. Reading philanthropist Henry Janssen supplied the funds for the purchase. Unfortunately, after Poole and Janssen were no longer around, a later administration, with no appreciation for some of the treasures in its care, deaccessioned Stone’s library over the years and sold it off piecemeal in what were, essentially, annual flea markets. Stone’s library has been scattered to the four winds, but turns up in bits and pieces at booksellers. Here is one of the RPM bookplates:

IMG_0364Here are the books I purchased:

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Some of them were owned by Julia Stockton Robins, who was very active in both the Pennsylvania Audubon Society and the Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club (a Philadelphia women’s birding club). When she died in 1906, her books apparently went to Stone. Robins, like Stone, is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and knowing how much work she did with him, and how highly he regarded her, it’s neat to see their two signatures together:

IMG_0362Edward H. Forbush’s classic Game Birds, Wildfowl, and Shore Birds was included:

IMG_0365John Dryden Kuser’s turbulent life story is featured in The Fascination of Nature, and his The Way to Study Birds (illustrated by the great Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as are – to my delight – some of the other books) was also in the lot:

LAF collageIt is a crying shame that Stone’s library, which was thoughtfully purchased and preserved by Poole, Janssen, and the RPM, met with the fate that it did. I now have a little slice of it, and I can feel Witmer standing in the spirit at my elbow as I sit and peruse the very same books that he did as he sat in the den of his Germantown home.

Set #1 of Bird Studies Finds a Home

Witmer Stone is remembered today primarily as the author of the monumental Bird Studies at Old Cape May, published in 1937 – the book that put Cape May birding on the map. Its combination of detailed observations and meticulously compiled data provide us with a good idea of the Cape May avifauna circa the early 1900s.  One contemporary reviewer wrote, “Dr. Stone writes in simple, dignified English which at times in its beauty and vividness rises to literary distinction.” That elegant prose is still enjoyed by readers today.

The Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) published the original 1,400 two-volume sets, and each has a page at the back of Volume 2 where the set number is printed (between 1 and 1,400).

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Stone gave set #1 to his wife Lillie, and it was signed by many of the men engaged in the production of the work, including the illustrators.

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The set has been in private hands since Lillie passed away in 1940, and it’s great news that it has recently found a new home in the Henry Janssen Library at the Berks History Center in Reading, PA, along with the original Earl Poole Osprey painting used as the frontispiece in Volume 1.

A photograph is affixed opposite the title page of Stone holding a BSOCM set in front of the Chestnut Hill home of Herbert Brown, who was a lifelong friend of Stone’s and one of the book’s illustrators.

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This a recent photo of the same house, and it doesn’t look like it’s changed a bit.

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The DVOC keeps track of the whereabouts of the original sets here. Many of Witmer’s effects went AWOL after Lillie died, including this set, so it’s a small and blessed wonder that it’s now housed at an institution that will give it a lot of TLC. Hopefully it will remain in its new home for good.