Friday, September 01, 2006

Witmer Stone goes for a stroll

On this day in 1920, Witmer Stone walked from Cape May to Cape May Point and wound up with a list of 86 species. He didn't give any further details on his "big morning" when he mentioned it in Bird Studies at Old Cape May, unfortunately. Elsewhere in the same work, Stone gave cumulative month lists for Cape May; September's total was 213, so he saw 40 percent of that total on his morning walk.

I think it's appropriate to start this blog with a moment in the life of Witmer Stone. Today we think of him as the authority who published three noteworthy books on NJ's avifauna; one of them, the aforementioned Bird Studies, may be one of the greatest bird books of all time. He was also a pivotal figure in the history of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Society (DVOC); James A. G. Rehn called Stone, "the most outstanding figure in [the DVOC's] history" in the obituary that he penned for Cassinia. This obituary was reprinted as part of the front matter in Dover's reissue of Bird Studies in Old Cape May and does a better job than I ever could of stating Stone's background and accomplishments. You can find a PDF of an expanded version of it that was printed in the Auk on SORA (Searchable Ornithological Research Archive).

One thing that Stone devoted much time to was the compilation of bibliographies. The Birds of New Jersey, Their Nests and Eggs has an extensive bibliography; this was Stone's best attempt to compile an all-inclusive list of sources for NJ ornithology. Later issues of Cassinia followed the tradition with updates containing the most recent publications on the state's birdlife. I suspect this love of bibliography came from the example of Stone's father Frederick, who was a historian and Librarian of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Of course, the eminent ornithologist Elliott Coues was also badly bitten by the bibliographic bug, so Stone was hardly the first bird student to fall prey to this malady.

Bibliography, in the end, is about looking back the way we've come, and Stone put this historical impulse to good use, particularly in his Cape May magnum opus. We would know far less about NJ's birdlife if he hadn't looked back from his own time. This is the heritage of all NJ birders. All of us depend on the vast body of records and reports that were accumulated, published and compiled by others. We are lucky to bird in a state with such a long ornithological history; much of the knowledge we take for granted, that we pick up by osmosis as we learn to bird, was discovered by others. That's what this blog is all about.

Returning to Stone's morning walk, I wondered if I could compare it to modern birding, numbers-wise. ABA's 2005 Big Day Report gives a NJ September Big Day record of 144, but of course this isn't for Cape May exclusively; ABA doesn't keep county listing milestones (alas). I pulled out David Sibley's The Birds of Cape May but realized that Sibley treats the entire county, while Stone's area was confined to Cape Island and the oceanfront up as far as Avalon. Time is on our side as well; the longer you wait for certain vagrants to show up, the better the probability they will (never mind birds like Cattle Egret which were unknown in the state when Stone wrote). So an exact comparison is not to be had. On the other hand, comparing Stone's month lists and Sibley's bar graphs is a very instructive exercise that I recommend to anyone who has access to both books.

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