Category Archives: Cape May Birding

Stone’s Restaurant

StoneRest

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

Summating Sea Ducks Over the Endless Stretch of Tossing Waves

Shack Mahal
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.

Seawatch

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

September in Cape May − Part 1

Witmer Stone had a long summer at Cape May in 1921. He was still young enough (54) and healthy enough that he spent a lot of time afield, unlike Cape May summers later in his life. Witmer and wife Lillie stayed at 917 Queen Street in 1921, the only year they did so; the following year they rented 909 Queen and that was their Cape May summer HQ thereafter. Witmer was back and forth to Philadelphia all summer, returning to the city occasionally to catch up with things at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

On his last trip to Cape May that summer, a 10-day sojourn, he arrived by train on September 8. Stone often counted the kestrels seen on the telegraph wires between Dennisville and Cape May; that evening, looking out the train windows, he counted 40. Mid-September is about the time of highest numbers for kestrels in Cape May, as they are hitting the peak of their fall migration then. On the 14th, kestrels were everywhere west of the town, especially in the area of today’s South Cape May Meadows. Stone wrote in Bird Studies at Old Cape May (BSOCM), “Swinging the glasses [i.e., binoculars] across the meadows I counted 65 kestrels perched on the wires besides many in the air, while on the broad sand flat back of South Cape May there were 35 resting on dead branches.” Kestrels have declined dramatically in the eastern North America in the past 20 years or so, and the numbers of loitering kestrels Stone had that day probably won’t be experienced by modern Cape May birders any time soon.

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Stone saw other raptors on his visit. On the 13th, he encountered a Sharp-shinned Hawk that “dropped what remained of his breakfast”; Stone retrieved it and found the skeleton of a warbler, picked clean. On the 16th, he found three young Bald Eagles soaring so close together over Cape May Point that he managed to get all of them into one binocular field of view.

Stone got in some shorebirds observations as well. He studied Greater and Lesser yellowlegs at the Lighthouse Pond. With his characteristic patience, he approached to within 10 feet of one of the Lessers, and stood motionless long enough for the Greater to land within 20 feet. I have noticed that when approaching shorebirds feeding along the ocean’s edge, the birds will flush when they find themselves “pinned” between me and the ocean, but if I pass them on the ocean side, they are less alarmed. Stone did the same with a flock of Sanderlings on the 15th, wading into the water to view the birds; in BSOCM, he recorded that “in this direct light they appeared to splendid advantage, their breasts gleaming like snow.”

Blackbirds (Red-wingeds, grackles, starlings, and cowbirds) on their way to the famed Physick estate Purple Martin roost stopped in the cornfield (yes, a cornfield in Cape May!) by the Stones’ cottage, and Witmer watched them feeding out his window. Early on the morning of the 15th, Stone found a flock of 1,000 grackles feeding half a block from the cottage, on the old Cape May golf course (now the Cape May City Elementary school), which “rolled up in a great sheet of birds onto the wires and trees on Lafayette Street.”

Fall migration was underway on Stone’s visit, and I’ll look at that in my next post.

September in Cape May − Part 2

During Witmer Stone’s September 8–18, 1921 trip to Cape May, fall migration was in full swing and birds were on the move. Stone had “first of the fall” appearances of some winter residents (Brown Creeper, Savannah Sparrow) and saw the last of some departing summer residents or fall migrants, including Short-billed Dowitcher, Piping Plover, Purple Martin, Least Flycatcher, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Swainson’s Thrush, and Grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows. Hard as it is to believe today, the latter species bred in the Cape May area in Stone’s time; he mentions finding young ones just off the nest in the fields by Race Track Pond.

Tree Swallows were swarming at Cape May, with the birds “pouring over the country in all directions, as if belching forth from some enclosure of which the door had been suddenly opened.”

TRES swarmed

 

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Tree Swallows still swarm in some numbers in autumn today at Cape May, but another bird much reduced since Stone’s time is the Sora. The night before Stone’s arrival, a massive migratory movement of Soras resulted in so many striking the telegraph wires that farmers told him dead Soras were found “every few yards” along the road from Erma to Cape May. (Stone experienced a similar flight on the 16th.) As sad as that is to contemplate, it’s even sadder that today’s Sora numbers are so much lower that a “heavy” flight wouldn’t produce a catastrophe of anywhere near that magnitude.

Irruptive Red-breasted Nuthatches were having a “flight year” in 1921, and the pine woods by Lake Lily (now mostly built over) were thick with them. Stone’s excellent description in BSOCM of the behavior of one bird included “Alighting on the trunk of the next tree he goes round and round head down, creeping like a mouse; now he pauses to pry off a loose scale of bark, seeking some lurking insect hiding beneath, now he stops and daintily picks off a number of gray aphids from a bunch of pine needles and then is off to other feeding grounds.” Earl Poole’s drawing in BSOCM looks like it could be the very bird Stone described:

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There is a curious dearth of warbler records in BSOCM, and on this trip – at the height of the neotropical migrant migration – Stone recorded the only Bay-breasted and Cape May warblers of the fall (single birds), and two of the three Magnolia Warbler sightings. All three species – particularly the Magnolia – are commonly found in fall migration at Cape May Point today and must have been more common in 1921, indicating that Stone and his colleagues weren’t giving the warbler flights any real notice. The CMBO folks are giving the warblers and other migrants much closer attention today.

IMG_9696Cape May Warbler at Cape May

 

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.”

Early April in Cape May

93 years ago today, Witmer Stone headed off for a weekend at Cape May. He stayed with Walker Hand and did at least some of his birding that weekend with his old Cape May friend. It was early spring, and some winter resident birds were still lingering: Common Loons, a flock of 20 Bonaparte’s Gulls near the Coast Guard Station at Cape May Point (CMP), five snipe flushed on a later afternoon walk, and a sapsucker visiting its borings in a hickory stand at CMP. Stone and Hand cornered a Horned Grebe in shallow water on a branch of Cape Island Creek. They expected the bird to take flight to escape; to Stone’s “amazement, however, it suddenly dived into the mud and shallow water,” slipping past them into deeper water. Stone also studied a Pied-billed Grebe on the inner Harbor at close quarters while he “remained concealed” – one of many times in BSOCM that we find Stone hiding behind vegetation or a structure, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, to get a close look at a bird in the days when birding optics were not of the present caliber.

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Spring was in the air, and Stone had some “first of spring” sightings of Pine Warbler (6 males feeding on the ground in an old field next to some pines, turning over leaves in their quest for insects), Green Heron, Piping Plover (6 birds on the Cape May beach), and Chipping and Field Sparrows. A pair of kingfishers cavorting over Lake Lily flew low over the water with stiff, spasmodic wingbeats, “the effect being of a body bouncing up and down on an elastic surface.” Birds were also on the move. Thousands of scoters were streaming down the coast, around CMP, and up the Bay. At the Fill – the part of town (now built over) where silt from the Harbor dredging had been deposited, and which had gone from grassland to shrubland in Stone’s time – a silent flock of Robins passed over, heading north, and 25 Flickers feeding in a burnt-over area there probably indicated a recent influx of migrants. Also on the Fill, Stone and Hand flushed a flock of 67 Black Ducks and two Blue-winged Teal which all took off together from a shallow pool of water and headed in the direction of Jarvis Sound to the north.

Stone had some nice raptor sightings that weekend as well. He said that most wintering Cooper’s Hawks were probably shot, making them scarcer as the season advanced, but he found one in a yard on Washington Street “gliding about among the trees to the consternation of the Grackles which were feeding there.” He also saw a Bald Eagle on the wing, struggling to hold its position against a strong northwest wind.

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A Cape May March Weekend c.1925

On this date 90 years ago (3/23/1925), Witmer Stone wrapped up a weekend trip to Cape May. He had finished off a note to T.S. Palmer on Friday, March 20th with “I am off to Cape May tonight to spend the weekend with Hand.” That referred, of course, to his great friend Walker Hand, described by Stone as “the ‘resident ornithologist’ of Cape May.” Hand was probably really more of a perceptive, knowledgeable outdoorsman than an “ornithologist,” but he and Stone taught each other a lot about birds over the years. In 1897, Hand built the house he lived in for the rest of his life at Washington St. & Madison Ave. in Cape May, now the “Inn at the Park” bed & breakfast:

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In addition to an apparent influx of Field Sparrows that had wintered to the south, Stone had some Cape May “first of spring” sightings that weekend for Wilson’s Snipe (the same name as in Stone’s day, although there has been some nomenclatural flux in the interim), Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, and Chipping Sparrow, and a “last of spring” sighting of a Vesper Sparrow. Spring was certainly in the air: Robins were in full song, Song Sparrows were performing courtship flights, a male Red-winged Blackbird singing on the South Cape May marsh engaged in futile pursuit of two passing females, a Carolina Wren singing a “peculiar rolling song” had Stone uncertain what species he was hearing until he “caught sight of the singer in the act,” and a Horned Grebe in full breeding plumage was preening on the oceanfront (Stone records that the grebe “fairly leaned over backward in the operation”).

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Not everything in the air that weekend was spring-like and pleasant. Stone found a dozen Turkey Vultures on the Bayshore perched near the carcass of a hog that had been disposed of by a local farmer. The skeleton was surrounded by vulture footprints out to a distance of 30 feet, and the ground was “flecked with white downy feathers lost [by the vultures] in their contests for choice bits of carrion.” Another flock of 25 vultures was roosting at a pigsty by Pond Creek Meadows. Stone studied them at close range and noted that the ruff of feathers sticking up off the birds’ necks looked like “a rolled collar drawn over the head from behind like a sort of mantilla.” (How many times have you come across that word in the ornithological literature – or anywhere else?)

Vultures, porcine pleasantries, and all, it sounds like a nice, early spring weekend at the Cape. In 1921, after summering in Cape May for four years, Stone started making regular spring trips there. He probably often stayed with Hand, who, according to Stone, was largely unrecognized by his fellow townsmen for the “extent and soundness of his natural history knowledge and the esteem in which he was held by naturalists elsewhere.”

A Dizzying Deluge of Tree Swallows

At this time of year, the Tree Swallows are swarming in the Cape May area, just as they did in Stone’s time. He described their flights in Bird Studies at Old Cape May: “The birds would suddenly scatter from the dense flock and pour over the country in all directions, as if belching forth from some enclosure of which the door had been suddenly opened…They flew low over the bushes and poured by close above my head until it seemed as if the whole sky was in motion and I felt dizzy…Once again they turn and going with the wind are fairly swept from the skies, and we see them far to leeward like a swarm of gnats, gathering once more to face the gale.” Although there probably aren’t as many Tree Swallows around as there used to be, on a good day they still congregate in sufficient numbers to make a modern observer feel as dizzy as Dr. Stone.

TRES

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