Tag Archives: Bird Studies at Old Cape May

Witmer and the Winging Waterthrush

As I discussed in The Fascination of Nature, Witmer Stone and the Audubon Society wardens, although clearly aware of the phenomenon, apparently didn’t spend much time studying the neotropical migrant flights through Cape May Point. That’s not the case today, when the Cape May Bird Observatory monitors  the flights every day from mid-August to the end of October from atop the bayside dike in the Higbee’s Beach Wildlife Management Area. Stone would doubtless be “astonished” at the skills of today’s observers, and the numbers of migrants they count (although the flights were certainly larger in Stone’s day, if he’d been paying more attention to them).

Tom Johnson is one of the outstanding young birders who monitors today’s flights; his ability to differentiate the similar-sounding, buzzy call notes and the subtle field marks of the migrants zipping past (most of the birds are identified in flight), and to also take field-guide quality photos of them, leaves visitors shaking their heads. Tom recently mentioned to me that he was impressed by Stone’s Bird Studies at Old Cape May description of Northern Waterthrush flight behavior: “The Northern Waterthrush can be readily identified when flying in the open. Not only is it darker and apparently blacker than any other small bird seen against the sky or the meadows, but its flight is characteristic. The body is long and slender and the long swoops between the series of short wingbeats produce a diving, somewhat undulatory movement, but more irregular and less pronounced than that of the Goldfinch.”

Tom thinks it’s remarkable that while today’s dike counts, and the counters’ ever-increasing knowledge of flight calls and on-the-wing field marks, are considered cutting edge research, Witmer Stone had started in on such observations 80 years ago. It makes you think that if we could bring Stone back and put him up on the Higbee’s dike some fall morning with westerly winds blowing, hand him a pair of modern optics, get him a little coaching from Tom et al., old Witmer would soon be getting the hang of identifying the whizzing wood warblers. Thanks to Tom for his insights, and for sending along two of his typically outstanding photos of Northern Waterthrushes in flight taken from the Higbee’s dike:

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Summating Sea Ducks Over the Endless Stretch of Tossing Waves

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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.

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.