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:
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.
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:
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.”
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: