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.

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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:

Christ among

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.

Witmer Wows ‘em at the Acorn

Witmer Stone gave hundreds of public talks over the years, beginning with a “pinch-hitting” appearance at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) in 1892 after the scheduled speaker had to cancel at the last hour. He spoke frequently at Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) and American Ornithologists’ Union meetings, and was a regularly featured speaker for 40 years at the Ludwick Institute’s meetings at ANSP.

In the spring of 1899, Stone delivered a series of five talks in a non-typical setting: the Acorn Club, an exclusive, aristocratic women’s club with a membership comprised of “Proper Philadelphians.” When I first came across a reference to the talks, I surmised, with equal parts humor and cynicism, that Witmer – a 33-year old bachelor at the time – was there looking for a wife. The probable real reason is a little less interesting: some of the members of the club were active in the recently-formed Pennsylvania Audubon Society, which was sponsoring the talks. (Some of the same women would soon form the Spencer F. Baird Ornithological Club, a ladies-only counterpart to the all-male DVOC.)

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The talks included “On the Delaware Meadows in Midwinter,” “Some Trips into Southern New Jersey,” “Why We Study Birds and How to Study Birds,” and “A Day in the Mountain Forests.” The latter talk was about Stone’s recent trips to the Lopez, Sullivan County, Pennsylvania region. A notice in a local newspaper said the talks would feature stuffed specimens of local birds, which sounds a bit macabre for a patrician women’s club until you remember that wealthy women – including, no doubt, some members of the Acorn Club – were contributing to the drastic decline of a few species by indulging in the fashion craze of the day of wearing stuffed birds in their hats.

Time marches on; the interests and social activism agendas of the Proper Philadelphians change. It’s probably been a while since someone gave a talk at the Acorn Club featuring bird skins. Unlike the skins, the Club itself is alive and well. It’s been at its current location at 1519 Locust Street for the past 50 years, and as the ladies chat over their crème brȗlèe these days, you can bet that none of them are suggesting they get an ornithologist to bring in a bunch of dead birds and tell them all about the Delaware meadows in midwinter.

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ANSP Frontiers article “What are archives good for?”

Fall 2015 cover

The latest issue of the Academy of Natural Sciences’ quarterly magazine Frontiers includes an article I wrote about the importance of archives for efforts like Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature. It can be found on page 12 of the “Fall 2015″ link here. It’s great to see Witmer in Frontiers (in which he published two short articles late in his life), and kudos to editor Mary Alice Hartsock and the Academy for putting a spotlight on him!

 

Birthday Boy

IMG_9689On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union quasi-victory at Antietam, President Abraham Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that on January 1, 1863, slaves would be declared emancipated in all Confederate states that were still at war with the Union. This is the second-most famous September 22nd in the nation’s history; the most famous, of course, came four years later when Witmer Stone was born to Anne and Frederick Stone in Philadelphia. The city’s black citizens held a parade every September 22nd for several years in celebration of the anniversary of Lincoln’s emancipation decree, and Stone later joked that the parade was held each year in honor of his birthday. While that’s not quite true, Philadelphia newspapers often noted the occasion (see photo).

There won’t be any parades today in Philadelphia for Witmer Stone or the Emancipation Proclamation – in fact, the city is entering full lockdown mode for a papal visit, and any parade floats would probably get towed – but us Witmer Stone Phans will, in our own quiet, Quaker, Witmer-like way, celebrate the 149th anniversary of the birth of our favorite ornithologist/botanist/author. So, as the WNSA boys would say, “Happy Birthday, Wit!”

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

 

Eliot Underdown

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Witmer Stone never had any children, but he had a paternalistic influence on many young men who were members of the DVOC and the AOU. One colleague wrote that Stone’s “knowledge, wit, and kindliness made him beloved to the beginners and the seasoned ‘wheel horses’ alike.”

Eliot Underdown took a strong interest in birds in his youth, and in 1923, at the age of 16, he joined both the DVOC and the AOU. He studied at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked under Stone for two years in the Academy of Natural Sciences’ (ANSP) ornithology department before moving on to the Field Museum in Chicago. One of the more poignant moments in Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature comes courtesy of a letter Underdown wrote to Stone from Chicago, thanking Stone for all he did to help Underdown in his ANSP days. Eliot also wrote that he followed the example set by Stone’s “modesty, and temperance of criticism of the work of others.” One gets a strong sense of the affection Underdown had for Stone, and of the effect that Stone’s kindly and patient personality had on the younger men fortunate enough to work with him.

Underdown was the son of Henry Underdown, DVOC treasurer for 32 years, and the cousin of another DVOC stalwart, the late Alan Brady. Eliot died too young, breaking short a promising ornithological career. He is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia; unfortunately, his grave is unmonumented.

In this photo of a DVOC outing from the late 1920s, Underdown is at center, facing right:

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