Category Archives: Birds

Urner Got There First 

Working in Ocean County, New Jersey this summer, I noticed flocks of shorebirds, mostly Sanderlings, heading south over the ocean beginning in mid-July. I am inexperienced with shorebirds in general, particularly ones flying at a distance, and my optics left a lot to be desired, but I was still able to observe some interesting flights. Highlights included 28 Whimbrels on 8/3 (and over 100 for the days I counted); almost 1,400 Sanderlings on 7/28; and 877 Sanderlings, 21 Semipalmated Plovers, 16 Ruddy Turnstones, 30 Black-bellied Plovers, 17 Short-billed Dowitchers, and 4 Red Knots on 8/7. Days with moderate to strong south winds were best, but I saw several flights on light westerly winds as well (the wind condition most mornings).

Whimbrels migrating past Seaside Park, NJ

I wondered how many other people were aware of the flights under the various conditions, and in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM) I found at least one person who knew all about them several years ago: the legendary Charles A. Urner. Concerning  the southbound shorebird flights, he told Stone, “In a  number of species observed from the seashore the main flights coincided with a steady south breeze, but they were not always so associated, and considerable movements of the several species were observed when the wind was very light from west or south.” I should have known: Urner got there first.


Charles Anderson Urner (1882–1938) moved in two very different worlds: he was a field ornithologist extraordinaire, and also a writer, editor, and eventually vice president at Urner-Barry, a commodities reporting company founded by his grandfather in 1858 (and still in business today).

Urner was a reformed duck hunter who put down his gun, took up binoculars, and published regularly on New Jersey shorebird migration the last 10 years of his life. Most of his counts were of migrants utilizing the salt meadows, particularly in the northern part of the state. Stone used Urner’s data extensively in BSOCM, and eleven years after Urner’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1938, age 56, Robert W. Storer published the final dataset from the ten-year study in The Auk.  Urner was active in the Linnaean Society of New York, the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, and the New Jersey Audubon Society.


Joseph Hickey, author of the classic A Guide to Bird Watching, and Peregrine Falcon biologist, recalled Urner from Linnaean meetings: “Urner was as close to a Born Ecologist as I have ever seen. He had a passion for census-taking. He wanted to do a quantitative survey of the bird life of New Jersey. He ran roadside transects and quadrat studies of succession on a landfill created by dredging. He was superb in field identification (the first to distinguish between the call notes of the two dowitchers), and he had an absolutely gorgeous sense of humor.” Today, shorebirds can still be seen migrating down the New Jersey coast under the same conditions described by Urner 80 years ago, and his pioneering counts are a great resource for comparison with present-day flights.

Mrs. Fisher’s Frigatebird

On this day 89 years ago (8/3/1926), a few days after the passage of the Nassau Hurricane, Muriel Fisher of Germantown, Pa., spotted an unusual bird kiting over the boardwalk at Cape May. She couldn’t find the bird in any books, and eventually sent a description of it to Witmer Stone. He immediately realized she’d seen a “Man-o’-war-bird,” now known as a Magnificent Frigatebird. (Frigatebird species are very difficult to differentiate in the field, but the Magnificent is the most likely species in New Jersey.) There had been an undocumented New Jersey record of a frigatebird from the 1870s, but Fisher’s was the first documented one. The bird, resident in the tropics, had doubtless been blown north of its usual neighborhood by the hurricane.

The sighting has had its doubters over the years; one recent author thought the description in Bird Studies at Old Cape May was “unconvincing.” (Stone had also written up the sighting in The Auk at the time he got Fisher’s letter in 1928.) Stone’s Auk and BSOCM descriptions, however, couldn’t practicably include three little sketches in Mrs. Fisher’s letter which, taken together, push the sighting a whole lot closer to “convincing.” Here are her sketches of the flight profile, beak, and tail shape from her letter to Stone:


Compare them with this excellent Greg Lavaty photograph that shows all three of the field characters depicted by Fisher:

magnificent-frigatebird__Greg Lavatyed

Years later, Fisher wrote to ask Stone’s opinion of a bird that had nested in Cape May the previous summer. A friend had identified it as a mockingbird (and from her description it clearly was), but Fisher, although admitting to short-sightedness, thought the bird must be a magpie. So she certainly wasn’t a particularly knowledgeable or experienced “birder,” but I’d make the case that her frigatebird notes were friggin’ convincing, and that hers should be considered the first credible New Jersey record of this tropical wanderer.


Lovely Laurel Hill

Witmer Stone is buried at Laurel Hill Cemetery, also the final resting place of fellow Academy ornithologists John Cassin and Eliot Underdown.


I visited on April 25, a glorious spring day, and am pleased to report that Witmer reposes in a spot that does not lack for ornithological interest. Twittering Rough-winged Swallows (later seen investigating potential nest sites in a cemetery retaining wall) and Chimney Swifts swooped low over the Stone family plot, hawking insects. Some lingering Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets and White-throated Sparrows would soon be continuing on their way north, and a handful of Yellow-rumped Warblers were the vanguard of a warbler pageant that will soon be taking place in the cemetery’s lovely old oaks and conifers.


Raptors were the stars of the show. A Red-tailed Hawk soaring near Stone’s grave probably has a mate with a nest nearby:


A pair of adult Bald Eagles was also soaring over the cemetery, on their way to and from who-knows-where:


Particularly interesting was a male Kestrel that turned a statue into an unwitting falconer:


The same or another male was later perched on one of the almost unlimited number of “kestrel perches” in Laurel Hill:


There is an obvious abundance of perches for these birds in a cemetery, but what they are finding to prey on in April is not so obvious to me. This guy was certainly too big for them to tackle:


The clucking Robins attendant at each Kestrel sighting suggests what these small falcons will be feeding on in a few weeks when the cemetery starts filling up with plump, clueless young Robins just off the nest. The Kestrels may well be nesting in a hollow in a cemetery tree, or in a nook or cranny in one of the many adjacent factory buildings.

Whether your interest is birding, history, dendrology, or simply an appreciation for a lovely spot out-of-doors, a trip to Laurel Hill Cemetery will fill the bill splendidly. Don’t forget to stop and pay your respects to Witmer and his kin over in Section P. There is also an overlook on the west side of the cemetery that takes in a long stretch of the Schuylkill River, and is one of the most spectacular vistas in Philadelphia. Here’s the view to the south, with Memorial Hall (built for the 1876 Centennial Exposition) in the distance:



Fox Sparrows Fairly Swarming

On this date 109 years ago (3/17/1906), Witmer Stone and James Rehn visited the Tuckerton/West Creek, New Jersey area. (Rehn was an Academy of Natural Sciences entomologist  who would later write Stone memorials for Cassinia and The Auk.) They discovered a heavy Fox Sparrow spring migration fallout, with hundreds of the birds “all over fences, chicken houses and elsewhere along the roads.” An unusually high number of migrant Fox Sparrows was noted that year during late February and March in the Delaware Valley; in Tuckerton Stone and Rehn found the birds “fairly swarming,” and “every thicket seemed full of them.”

WYO 2296

Fox Sparrows winter throughout the U.S. and breed mostly in Canada. There probably aren’t as many Fox Sparrows around as there were in 1906, but they’re still common birds, and their spring migration still peaks in mid-March in the Delaware Valley. In addition to the pleasure of seeing these striking, large sparrows with their fox-red streaks and bright yellow lower mandibles, the males can also often be heard singing on spring migration. The song is a beautiful,  finchy tumble of buzzy notes and slurred whistles, and Stone and Rehn must have heard hundreds of renditions of it on that day in 1906: