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.
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.
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:
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”).
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.”