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 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.”

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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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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 just might 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.”

Catoxen Cabin

Some previous posts have mentioned Catoxen Cabin near Medford, New Jersey, built by Witmer Stone and a few friends in 1899, when the area was still rural. Stone once described typical visits to the cabin: “Here it was possible to live the life of the back woods whenever a day or two could be spared from the activities of business; when trees could be felled, meals cooked over the camp fire, a little game obtained, bird lists made up, or the wild creatures of the woods tracked in the winter’s snow.”

I found some references to Catoxen in Stone’s correspondence, and knew approximately where the cabin had been, but I assumed it was long gone. I made a few inquiries to local historical societies to see if anyone knew anything about its location. Fortunately one of them passed my query along to the inquisitive and tenacious Janet Jackson-Gould, and I was astonished to get an email from her telling me that the cabin was still standing, 112 years later! It’s part of Camp Dark Waters, a Quaker camp for kids, just across the Rancocas Creek from the Medford Leas retirement community. Here are some cabin photos from 100+ years ago alongside recent ones (that’s Witmer with ax, and wife Lillie in center in first photo):

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In 1914, Stone and the other owners worked a long, tiring day putting a new roof on the cabin, and if one of them had quipped then that the cabin looked like she could last another 100 years, there probably would have been some guffaws. Yet despite almost 90 years of continuous use by rowdy teenage boys in the interim, Catoxen remains upright. Architect and DVOC founding member George Spencer Morris “designed” the cabin (to the extent that such a small structure needs “designing”), and you have to think that some combination of his architectural acumen, the fellows’ carpentry skills, and the quality of the building materials used is the reason the place is still there. Kudos to Camp Dark Waters for taking such good care of this historic cabin − and “living” link to Witmer Stone −  for so many years!

You can visit the DVOC website to read the Morris and Stone Cassinia articles on Catoxen cabin.

 

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:

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

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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.

 

The Class of ’87 Scrapbooks

Another one of my favorite stories from writing Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature concerns the day I was doing some research at the University of Pennsylvania archives. UP’s archivist extraordinaire, James Duffin, wheeled in a cart with two large books wrapped in brown paper and butcher twine, saying, “By the way, I found these Class of 1887 scrapbooks in the archives. I knew Stone was a member of the class, so I thought you might find something in there about him.” Did I ever. Upon opening the first one (there were five altogether), I found – right there on the first page – that Stone was the one who created them! The class was so impressed with the first volume Stone produced in 1910 that they immediately appointed him class secretary for life. He presented the class with the fifth and final volume at their 50-year reunion in 1937, in a ceremony in the Furness library (scrapbook photo of Stone and ’87 classmate, lawyer, and former U.S. Senator George W. Pepper; second photo of the same location today):

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In this scrapbook photo, Stone (front and center) seems to be leading the parade at the class’s 25-year reunion in 1912. Note the banner, matching outfits, and Class of ’87 boater hats (modeled by Stone in inset):

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Commenting on his declining health in 1936, Stone told a friend, “This autumn also brings me to the 70th milestone of my life…Next year (1937) our college class holds its 50th reunion…So I don’t want to be shot until these celebrations are completed.” Well, he made it − here’s another scrapbook photo of Stone (arrow) at the Class of ’87 50-year reunion:

IMG_5672 - CopyThe scrapbooks contain photos, menus, attendance sheets, and other similar items from the semiannual reunions (one in winter, one in summer), as well as newspaper clippings featuring class members, and – increasingly in later years – their obituaries. I spent a couple of hours that day going through the books, and it was a fascinating, time travel history experience. By the end I had such a familiarity with these guys that I felt like I’d been a member of the class. Kudos to Jim Duffin and the folks in the UP archives!