Category Archives: Philadelphia

A closer look at the wing of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) in First Basic plumage

Like other migratory Catharus species, juvenile Swainson’s Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) molt into a ‘First Basic’ plumage at the end of their first summer, which they wear for one year before attaining their ‘Adult Basic’ plumage. The partial molt that results in First Basic plumage includes some or all of the median coverts (the little olive feathers above the numbered row), and up to five of the (inner) greater coverts, which are numbered 1–9 in the image. In this case, the bird molted only one greater covert: #1, the fresh olive covert without a buffy tip. The retained juvenile coverts (2–9) are paler and more brown, and numbers 2–6 end with a buffy tip. This is called a molt limit, and it helps us to figure out the age of a bird. For all the juicy details of molt limits in North American passerines, check out Peter Pyle’s Identification Guide to North American Birds, Part 1, 1997.

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This bird died in a window collision in Montgomery Co., PA, in late September 2016. After taking the photo, I prepared the specimen for the Ornithology Collection at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Legend: primaries (P1–8); secondaries (S1–9). The 9th and reduced 10th primaries are not visible in the photo.

Smooth-billed Ani — in Philadelphia!

Like most birders, Philadelphians get excited about a rare bird. With over 250 years of bird records from Philadelphia, the birthplace of American ornithology, there are very few species that have been detected in the city only once—the rarest of the rare.

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ANSP 24271. Ornithology Department, Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University (Photo: M. Halley)

One of the most mind-boggling records is actually not well known by birders today—a Smooth-billed Ani (Crotophaga ani) was collected in the 1850s by John Krider, apparently on an island in the Delaware River near Kensington, Philadelphia. Today, and during Krider’s time as well (Baird 1860), the nearest breeding ground of this Neotropical cuckoo-relative (Cuculidae) is in southern Florida. Otherwise, the species is a widely distributed breeder in the tropical and subtropical savannas of the Caribbean, Central and South America.

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ANSP 24271, label verbatim: “Shot on Peters Is. Delaware Riv. opp. Kensington Pa. J Krider Coll.” (Photo by M. Halley)

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Closeup of Charles Ellet Jr.’s (1843) map of Philadelphia, showing the location of Petty’s Island in the Delaware River.

However, the island opposite Kensington is called Petty Island today (not Peters Island, which is actually in the Schuylkill River near Montgomery Dr.), and during Krider’s time it was called Petty’s Island — so something here is amiss. To confuse things further, in Krider’s (1879:16–17) published account there is no mention of the island, and it actually implies that the bird was collected in the expansive meadows of South Philadelphia (i.e., Passyunk, Moyamensing), a habitat that would later be consumed by urban development: “The Ani is a southern bird. I shot one specimen in the month of September, in the meadows below the built-up part of the City of Philadelphia. It was flying in company with a flock of rusty Gracles [probably Common Grackle Quiscalus quiscala, or perhaps Rusty Blackbird Euphagus carolinus]; the specimen is now in the Academy of Natural Sciences.”

So the precise locality where the bird was collected is uncertain, because Krider’s (1879) account disagrees with the information on the (not original) specimen label. Nevertheless, it was evidently collected in one of the marshes along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Spencer Baird (1860:73) wrote: “A Crotophaga, killed near Philadelphia, and now in the collection of the Philadelphia Academy, appears to be a typical C. ani (as described by Burmeister) in the smoothness of the bill and other peculiarities. It is decidedly smaller than rugirostris, the culmen straight at its highest point, the anterior extremities of this nearly straight portion anterior to the nostril. The colors are, however, almost precisely the same with those of rugirostris. Length, 12 inches: wing, 6.10; tail, 7.75; tarsus, 1.25; chord of culmen, 1.15.”

References
Baird, S. F. 1860. The birds of North America: the descriptions of species based chiefly on the collections in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co.
Krider, J. 1879. Forty years notes of a field ornithologist. Philadelphia: Joseph H. Weston.

1831: The Academy gets tax-exempt status!

The first 20 years of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia were an uncertain time, and had it not been for the generosity of William Maclure (1763–1840), known in perpetuity as the ‘Father of American Geology’, the persistence of the now storied institution through that period would be doubtful. But others too, including corresponding secretary Reuben Haines III, about whom I have written much, had the long-term scientific mission of the Academy in mind, and made steps to secure its finances for that reason. In 1831, a major step toward that goal was achieved — the Academy received tax exempt status by the PA state legislature.

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In the Academy Library & Archives (Collection 396), there is a facsimile of a letter (above) dated February 22, 1831, written by Haines to his state representative, Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis, that chronicles the event:

Hall of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Philadelphia, February 22nd 1831.

Sir,
I am instructed by the Academy to return you the sincere thanks of the Members for your zealous and successful exertions in obtaining for our institution an exemption from taxes. The Academy will be at all times particularly flattered by your cooperation in promoting its views; and any of the natural productions of Pennsylvania, or of the other states in the Union which may come under your notice, will be gratefully acknowledged.

I am sir, with great respect,
your obediant servant.
R Haines
Corresponding Secty

The Academy apparently acquired the letter over 100 years after it was written; presumably it was initially been passed down through the family of Colonel Davis. It was donated to the Academy by William C. Meek, as documented in a 1962 letter from Academy librarian Venia T. Phillips to Mr. Meek, thanking him for the gift:

January 11, 1962

Dear Mr. Zeek,

I was very happy to have an opportunity to look at the letter pertaining to the Academy of Natural Sciences. This Reuben Haines, who signed it, was Corresponding Secretary between February 15, 1814 and October 16, 1831 in which year he died in office, so you see the letter written by him on February 22, 1831 would have been one of his very late letters. I understand from Miss Dicken that we were priveleged to have a copy of this made for our files, which I have done.

Please accept our sincere thanks for the courtesy in regard to the matter.

Sincerely yours,
(Mrs.) Venia T. Phillips
Manuscript Librarian

Audubon and the Academy of Natural Sciences: It’s complicated.

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Oil portrait of Audubon by John Syme, 1826. Source: Wikipedia.

In the halls of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University you will occasionally hear it mentioned, in a slightly boastful way, that the Academy was an “original subscriber” to John James Audubon’s masterpiece The Birds of America. This statement is technically true, because the Academy became a subscriber shortly after the work was published, probably around 1831, but it is also disingenuous. In 1824, when Audubon came to the Academy in search of an engraver and/or publisher, he was turned away and later rejected for membership. As the story is told, Audubon drummed up some animosity with George Ord and engraver Alexander Lawson, who had worked with the late Alexander Wilson and were at the time financially invested in publishing a second edition of Wilson’s American Ornithology. It may be that Audubon’s extraordinary talent was perceived as threatening to the success of that venture, or perhaps his paintings were simply too difficult to engrave but Lawson was too proud to admit it—either way, Audubon met significant resistance to his plan.

Reuben Haines III, corresponding secretary of the Academy, took a liking to Audubon and invited him to his country estate called Wyck, which is now engulfed by urban development in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia. Audubon stayed at Wyck on July 25th, and the next day traveled to his teenage home Mill Grove, in Haines’s carriage. That evening they dined with the famous clockmaker Isaiah Lukens at Mill Grove, which was at that time under the ownership of Mr. Wetherill, who had bought the property from the Audubons many years prior.

At the next meeting of the Academy, on the evening of July 27, Audubon was nominated for corresponding membership by Haines, Lukens, and the French naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur. But his nomination was “black-balled” (rejected) in a vote on August 31. In a recent facebook post, Academy archivist Jennifer Vess described the balloting procedure that was used:

“After the founders’ meeting, it was decreed that every new member must be nominated by two active members, his name read before the group and voted on at the next business meeting. A single black marble in the voting box meant the nominee had been rejected. It was presumed that the prospective member knew nothing of his nomination, so that the insult of being rejected would not be known by him. If black-balled, the nomination blank was destroyed to remove any record of the outcome of the election.”

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Original record of nomination of “J. J. Audubon, Natchez Correspondent,” on July 27, 1824, by C. A. Lesueur, R. Haines, and I. Lukens. Notably, Audubon was the only nominee rejected by vote (“X”) on August 31. Courtesy of the Library and Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

It is curious that Audubon’s rejection was not destroyed as was the custom, and there is no evidence of any reason why—so cue the speculations. Two relevant facts are that Audubon was no longer in Philadelphia when the vote was cast, and that he was stressed about his failure to find support in America. In a recently discovered letter from Audubon to Haines dated December 25, 1825, the desperate ornithologist pleaded for help one last time:

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A wooden ballot box like those used in the 1824 vote – perhaps the same one. (Image courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, coll. 115)

“Now my dear Mr Haines I must change my subject.—I must touch the only thing that ever vibrated sorrow to my heart.—I must leave America.—And you, and a few more friends.—I must go and seek far from my few connections, a […] purse for my long labours with as little hope to obtain this abroad as I am sure never to possess it in this my beloved country.—I assure you I count every day that are to [elapse] between this and the awfull moment when the sails will be spread that will waft off the vessel bearing my hopes, much like he who consigned to unmerited punishment hopes and yet dreads that another world will not be better to him than the one he is about to leave for ever.—With an allmost despairing heart I shall leave America early this ensuing spring, and now bid you my farewell.—Yes it is my farewell indeed for unless a success scarce expected should take place, I never will review this happy continent, will have to abandon my long acquired habits of watching nature at work and will droop moreso amongst the dreg of the world as it is called.” (Halley 2015, ‘The Heart of Audubon‘)

Audubon later published a more subdued synopsis of the events, practically bereft of emotion, in Ornithological Biography (1831: xiv; bracketed names mine):

“America being my country, and the principal pleasures of my life having been obtained there, I prepared to leave it with deep sorrow, after in vain trying to publish my Illustrations in the United States. In Philadelphia, Wilson’s principal engraver [Lawson], amongst others [Ord], gave it as his opinion to my friends [Bonaparte, Haines, Lesueur], that my drawings could never be engraved. In New York, other difficulties presented themselves, which determined me to carry my collections to Europe.”

Years later, after The Birds of America was a sensational hit, on September 27, 1831, Audubon’s name was again moved to nomination for Academy membership, and this time the vote passed despite Ord’s continuing enmity. He became a corresponding member on October 25th, 1831, but sadly, his friend and confidante Reuben Haines missed the vote, having died of a laudanum overdose six days earlier…but that is another story.

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Original record of Audubon’s second (and successful) nomination, on Sept 27, 1831, the numerous signatories, and the election on October 25th, 1831. Courtesy of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, collection 115.

Thanks to Jennifer Vess and the staff of the Library & Archives of the Academy of Natural Sciences, and Bert Filemyr of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club for insightful comments that improved historical accuracy.

Witmer Stone was born 150 years ago today.

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Witmer Stone in his youth. (www.archives.upenn.edu)

If you watch birds in southeast Pennsylvania or New Jersey, chances are you have heard of Witmer Stone (1866–1939), naturalist, historian of science, co-founder of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC) and first editor of its journal Cassinia. Among other accomplishments, Stone was also President of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) from 1920–23 and Editor of its journal The Auk from 1912–36. He played a critical role in restoring the bird collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia during the 1890s, after it had been neglected for years following the death of John Cassin (1813–69), and he added to the collection by joining Academy expeditions to Bermuda, Cuba, and Mexico, among other places.

Recently, I was elected to Stone’s old position, Editor of the DVOC and Cassinia, and I have been using data from Stone’s bird collections in my research at the Academy. A few months ago, while rummaging through a box of old items that were going to be discarded, I found and saved a treasure—an autographed reprint of Stone’s 1890 article ‘Birds collected in Yucatan and southern Mexico’, from the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. At the top of the pamphlet reads “Mr Serrill with the compliments of Witmer Stone”. Evidently the reprint was a gift from Stone to William J. Serrill (?–1952), who had joined the DVOC in 1891 and was an active member (and later Fellow) of the club for 61 years.

In early 1890, Stone accompanied malacologist Frank C. Baker (1867–1942) and geologist Angelo Heilprin (1853–1907) on an Academy expedition to the Yucatan, by way of Cuba. Stone was a young man—24 years old—just beginning his scientific career. Incidentally, I was the same age (23-24) when I joined my first field expedition, to study manakins (Manacus spp.) in western Panama with Adam Stein, so I can empathize a bit with Stone at this period of his life. He must have been very excited when this paper came out in the Proceedings. The ornithological community of Philadelphia was in the midst of a Renaissance, largely due to Stone’s prolific energy—the DVOC was founded that same year, and Stone mobilized a crew of birders to monitor the spring and fall migrations at multiple sites around the city. I think that Stone would be proud that today we are continuing his legacy of citizen science, and that the DVOC is still a thriving organization where professional and avocational ornithologists mingle to celebrate and share their mutual passion for birds. Happy birthday Dr. Stone — your legacy continues!

For a lot more about Witmer Stone, check out Scott McConnell’s excellent biography Witmer Stone: The Fascination of Nature.

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Genetic sampling of Townsend’s 1835 type specimens of Catharus

In 1834, pioneer naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) and John Kirk Townsend (1809–51) ventured westward with the second expedition of Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth (1802–56), across the Rocky Mountains and eventually to the mouth of the Columbia River. The trip was a huge success, and Townsend discovered numerous bird species that were previously unknown to science. In 1836, Townsend opted to venture farther west to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and so entrusted his bird collection to Nuttall, who returned with it to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. There, the specimens were eagerly awaited by John James Audubon (1785–1851), who was preparing the final plates for The Birds of America:

“Dr Townsend’s collection was at Philadelphia; my anxiety to examine his specimens was extreme…Having obtained access to the collection I turned over and over the new and rare species but he [Townsend] was absent at Fort Vancouver on the shores of the Columbia River, Thomas Nuttall had not yet come from Boston and loud murmurs were uttered by the soidisant friends of science, who objected to my seeing, much less portraying and describing, these valuable relics of birds, many of which had not yet been introduced into our fauna.” Audubon (1838:xi)

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Paralectotype of Catharus guttatus nanus, collected by Townsend and described by Audubon (1839)

Among the specimens in the collection were two thrushes new to science, that we now know as Catharus ustulatus Nuttall (i.e., Swainson’s Thrush) and Catharus guttatus nanus Audubon (now considered a subspecies of Hermit Thrush). The prepared specimens are still in the Academy collection. See my previous post about the discovery and description of the C. ustulatus type.

Today, I harvested a tiny sample of skin from the C. ustulatus holotype, and a paralectotype of C. g. nanus—both collected by Townsend during the Wyeth expedition. The samples will be prepared and submitted for DNA sequencing—genetic data that will be included in my dissertation work on the systematics, evolution, and taxonomy of the genus Catharus. These two type specimens, which were examined 180 years ago by Townsend, Nuttall, and Audubon, will now be used again to clarify the ancestry and taxonomy of these species. I hope that, if they were alive today, Townsend and the rest would approve!

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Collecting skin tissue for DNA sequencing from the holotype of Catharus ustulatus (ANSP #23644)—collected by Townsend and described by Nuttall (1840). Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Photo: Steve Miller.

 

 

A window into 1850 Philadelphia, looking south from Girard College

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One of my favorite historical images of the Philadelphia landscape is a lithograph by naturalist-artist John William Hill that was published by Smith Brothers & Co. in 1850 — if there were camera-drones in the 1840s, this is what the footage would look like.

You find yourself at once suspended a hundred meters in the air, looking south across the city from the so-called ‘Northern Liberties’. Large meadows cover a landscape that now  (166 years later) is largely concrete. Founder’s Hall at Girard College takes center stage, with its large pillars and rooftop thrill-seekers. Look to the right in the distance and you will see the medieval castle Eastern State Penitentiary, and beyond it the Schuylkill River.

The University of Pennsylvania is visible on the far bank of the Schuylkill, flanked by two bridges. The closer of the two (far right of the image) is the 109 meter “Wire Bridge at Fairmount“, the first major cable suspension bridge in the United States, which opened in 1842 and stood for 30 years.

The most distant bridge (upper right of the penitentiary in the image) is (was) the first permanent bridge over the Schuylkill River, crossing the river at High St. (now Market St.). This wooden (!) bridge was famously adorned with artistic carvings by the ‘Father of American sculpture’, William Rush (1756–1833), but alas, it was destroyed by fire in 1850—the same year this lithograph was published—so this may very well be the last image of it, albeit at a distance.