“Winter” specimens of Swainson’s Thrush in eastern North America


ANSP193361 — C. u. swainsoni, collected by J.H. Weber on 3/3/1904. Photo: Matthew R. Halley

I came across a specimen of Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus swainsoni) in the ornithology collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences (ANSP193361) that was collected by J. H. Weber in Fort Lee, New Jersey on March 3, 1904! This sparked my curiosity because this taxon, considered a subspecies by most authorities but a species by the Brazilians (Piacentini et al. 2015), spends the winter in South America and does not typically arrive in North America until April. This set me on a brief search for other North American “winter” specimens of C. u. swainsoni. For the purpose of my investigation, I was hesitant to rely on sight records, because it is easy to misidentify these thrushes in the field (trust me), and eastern Hermit Thrushes C. guttatus faxoni are normal winter residents in these regions. For these reasons, I wanted hard evidence, and a search of major specimen collections did the trick.

I looked for specimens collected during November through March. A query on VertNet.org returned 800 specimen records from that time period, of which 24 were collected in North America east of the Mississippi River. Of those, 9 were erroneous or dubious (e.g., several records had the date 1/1, the default of some databases when a date field is left blank). After separating the wheat from the chaff, I managed to uncover 15 (apparently) legitimate “winter” records, which I plotted alongside an eBird chart compiled from three “Bird Conservation Regions” that cover a large portion of the ‘transient zone’, i.e., in between the breeding and wintering grounds of C. u. swainsoni. Interestingly, the specimen that started my search (ANSP193361) was actually one of three taken by J. H. Weber in Fort Lee, New Jersey—20% of the “winter” C. u. swainsoni specimens taken in eastern North America were found at the same place by the same guy!


The orange curves in the figure show the annual cycle (in total # of birds detected) from the perspective of birders in the ‘transient zone’. There is a sharp decline in autumn (far right of the graph), and detections typically cease by the end of October. The birds are then absent for the next five months (they are “on holiday” in South America). Then, the spring migration brings a rapid increase in detections in early- and mid-April, as Swainson’s Thrushes migrate northward to their breeding grounds.


C. u. swainsoni in the ‘transient zone’. Photo: Matthew R. Halley.

Three of the “winter” specimens were collected in early November, and can easily be attributed to late departures, and not overwintering birds (MCZ338962, UMMZ234592, UWBM86964). To my knowledge, there have been no specimens collected during December, and only one legitimate record from January, a specimen collected in Brown Co., Wisconsin (FMNH351309); and that specimen was collected in late January (the 21st). Two specimens from mid- and late-February were collected in Frederick Co., Maryland (UWBM 38236), and New Haven Co., Connecticut (YPM ORN 002630), respectively. The remaining 9 specimens were taken in March, one month before the expected arrival of the species in North America, and so can be explained as early arrivals. Indeed, given the distribution of these “winter” specimens, clustered near the tails of the eBird distributions, there is very little to suggest that any of them were actually over-wintering individuals. Rather, they seem to be aberrant individuals with early or late departure or arrival dates, outliers way out on the tail ends of the normal distribution, but still a part of that distribution. However much I might like to think one of these Swainson’s Thrush specimens was an over-wintering bird, the null hypothesis is that they are just super late/early migrants (i.e., a migrant with wacky timing seems more plausible than a bird that ceased to migrate altogether). At present, the weight of the evidence is not enough to reject the null.

So no—sorry to get you excited, but at the present moment there is no evidence of a Swainson’s Thrush wintering in North America. Many thanks to the folks at ebird.org and VertNet.org, and to the many collectors, preparators, and curators of the collections.

[UPDATE, 12/21/2016: I recently came across an article in Cassinia (62:65) in which Keith Russell reported a Swainson’s Thrush at Cape May Courthouse, NJ, on December 24, 1985! Identification was corroborated by Bob Ridgley. This indeed is a good candidate for an individual *actually* overwintering in this region, but I do not know if it was seen in subsequent weeks.]

Witmer Stone was born 150 years ago today.


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.




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)


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!


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.



Katharine (Clark) Harding Day (1891–?), a forgotten female pioneer of American Ornithology

For several years now, I have been compiling information about a pioneer American ornithologist named Katharine Harding Day (1891–?), neé Katharine Clark, who everyone seems to have forgotten about. That she is not well known can be attributed, in part, to the systemic repression of women in science and other intellectual pursuits that was so prevalent during her time (e.g., the Matilda effect), a legacy that we are still grappling with today. Many ornithological societies of that era excluded women from membership, or if they included them, did it begrudgingly. Keep this in mind as you read on.

I will call her Katharine hereafter, to make the story easier to comprehend, since she published under two surnames. At this point, I cannot claim to have assembled anything more than a brief sketch of her life, and a bibliography of her scientific contributions, but these will at least serve to bring her name(s) out of the shadows, and perhaps to attract some other knowledgeable person to come forth with more details.

Names—this is one reason that Katharine faded into obscurity, whereas her contemporary Margaret Morse Nice (1883–1974) has become widely known among modern birders and ornithologists. Margaret married Leonard Nice in 1908, and then began her publishing career in 1910, using the same double-surname her entire life. By contrast, Katharine published under two surnames—Harding and Day—both being acquired in marriage, and for most of her life, men referred to her (in print anyway) as “Mrs. <insert husband’s name here>”.

Yep, unless you read her papers closely, or know something of her life, you would probably think that these were two different women. That her friend and colleague Arthur Cleveland Bent (1866–1954), invariably referred to her in his famous Life Histories as “Mrs. Richard B. Harding”, speaks volumes to the sexism that permeated the ornithological community of that era. For context, women achieved the right to vote just five years before Katharine began her seminal studies of songbird behavior.benjaminprestonclark

There is a rare and out of print biography of Katharine’s father that was self-published by her mother after his death (Clark 1947). Thankfully, I was able to track down a copy, that incidentally originally belonged to Ellis W. Brewster, and so was able to piece together more of the story.

Katharine C. Clark was born on February 10, 1891, in Norfolk, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Josephine Frances Allen (1868–?) and Benjamin Preston Clark (1860–1939), an American entomologist with expert knowledge of sphinx moths (Family Sphingidae). In fact, Katharine’s father even named a species of Mexican sphinx moth after her:

“I have given this form the name [Xylophanes] katharinae in honor of my daughter Mrs. Richard B. Harding, because of her keen interest in science and because this form is so close to X. josephinae, named for my wife.” (Clark 1931)

See what I mean?  Even her own father called her by her husband’s name while honoring her with a new species! There is not to my knowledge, any digital image of X. katharinae, although there is a nice writeup on Wikipedia about the species. Incidentally, the holotypes of both X. josephinae and X. katharinae are at the Carnegie Museum, but I have not yet seen them.


Xylophanes josephinae Clark, collected at La Union, Zacapa, Guatemala. Source: Dorsal Side Collection of the Mathematician Laurent Schwartz (Wikipedia.org)

On June 8, 1912, at the age of 21, Katharine married Richard Bruce Harding (1888–1945) at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal church in Cohasset, Massachusetts. In 1913, she gave birth to their first son, Richard Jr., and in 1917, their second, Robert. In 1922, the Hardings set up a bird banding station in Cohasset, and from 1925 to 1932, she published 15 times under the name K. C. Harding. These included reports of recaptured banded birds in the Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association (including its inaugural issue), and occasional notes on the nesting behavior of various species.

In 1924, Katharine spent five weeks at a camp near Holderness, New Hampshire, after which she published a short paper called “Semi-colonization of Veeries” from observations there. In that paper, she reported an unusually high density of nests and apparently no aggression among male Veeries (Harding 1925), foreshadowing my discovery of cooperative parental care and flexible mating systems in that species nearly a century later (Halley et al. 2016).

In 1930, Katharine presented on her studies of Black-throated Blue Warbler nesting behavior at the 48th meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Salem, New Hampshire, on October 21–24, 1930.


Group photo from the 1930 meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), held at The Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachussetts, Oct. 21–24. (Source: Library of Congress)


Closeup of the 10 women included in the 1930 AOU photo. Each individual is numbered in the photo, but the key has apparently not been digitized. Which one is Katharine?

In 1931, she published in the Auk the research she had presented at the AOU meeting, the most comprehensive study of the nesting habits of the Black-throated Blue Warbler at that time, reporting on 15 nests of banded birds that were monitored over four breeding seasons (1928–1931). That paper also included detailed descriptions of nest building and parental care (Harding 1931). Her last note in Bird-Banding published under the surname Harding, came out in 1943, in which she reported an 8 year old Song Sparrow, which at the time was a remarkable record.


Her sons Richard and Robert married, in 1938 and 1942 respectively, and their father Richard B. Harding (Katherine’s spouse) passed away on February 4, 1945. Three years later, Katharine married Freeman Day (June 12, 1948) and apparently moved with him to Eugene, Oregon. This information is gleaned from the address line of a paper she published in 1953 as “Katherine C. Day”, about the same Veery project from Holderness, New Hampshire, that she had written about previously (Harding 1925). This paper—”Home Life of the Veery”—summarized nesting data collected from 1926–32, and remained for years the only substantial paper on Veery nesting behavior (albeit of unbanded birds).

This is where, for the time being, the trail runs cold. Are there any living descendants of Katharine out there, descended from her sons Richard and Robert? The family tree in her father’s biography (Clark 1947) confirms that they had children of their own in the mid-1940s. Were Katharine’s field notebooks passed down in the family? Do they still exist?

If you know something, please share!


Pearse, E. H. D. 1954. List of descendants of John Davis and Hannah Davis Williams. Self-published.

Clark, B. P. 1931. Descriptions of seven new Sphingidae and a note on one other. Proceedings of the New England Zoological Club 12, 77–83.

Clark, J. F. 1947. Benjamin Preston Clark. Thomas Todd Co., Boston, MA.


Katherine (Clark) Harding Day — Bibliography

Harding, K. C. 1925. Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) nesting in Cohasset, Mass. Auk 42(1):141–142.

Harding, K. C. 1925. Semi-colonization of Veeries. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 1:4–7.

Harding, R. B., and K. C. Harding. 1925. Juncos with diseased feet. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 2(2):39–40.

Harding, K. C. 1926. Tree Sparrow Returns. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 2(1):16

Harding, R. B., and K. C. Harding. 1926. White-throats in Cohasset, Massachusetts. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 2(2):37

Harding, K. C. 1926. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 2(1):16.

Harding, K. G. [sic] 1927. A Black-throated Blue Warbler return near Lake Asquam, New Hampshire. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 3(3):74–75.

Harding, K. C. 1927. A partial record of the nesting of the Kingfisher. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 3(3):69–70.

Harding, K. C. 1927. The protection of ground nests while under observation. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 3(3):54–55.

Harding, K. C. 1928. Purple Finch’s nesting ceremony. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 4(3):108.

Harding, K. C. 1929. A White-throated Sparrow Return. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 4(1):29.

Harding, K. C. 1929. Further observations on the Black-throated Blue Warbler. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 5(2):77–80.

Harding, K. C. 1929. Outwitting a Saw-whet Owl. Bulletin of the Northeastern Bird Banding Association 5(2):36.

Harding, K. C. 1930. A change in the nesting-habits of the Wood Pewee. Bird-Banding 1:144.

Harding, K. C. 1931. Nesting habits of the Black-throated Blue Warbler. Auk 48:512–522.

Harding, K. C. 1931. Cerulean Warbler in Holderness, New Hampshire. Auk 47:90.

Harding, K. C. 1932. Age record of Black-capped Chickadee. Bird-Banding 3:18.

Harding, Katherine G. [sic] 1942. A Purple Finch Recovery. Bird-Banding 13(3):121.

Harding, Katherine G. [sic] 1942. Unusual Chickadee Returns. Bird-Banding 13(3):121.

Harding, Katharine C. 1943. An eight year old Song Sparrow. Bird-Banding 14(3):77.

Harding, K. C. 1943. Banding a Scarlet Tanager. Bird-Banding 14(3):76.

Day, K. C. 1953. Home life of the Veery. Bird-Banding 24:100–106.




A window into 1850 Philadelphia, looking south from Girard College


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.


Audubon’s Search for the Perfect Paint


Early photograph of Daniel B. Smith (Source: Wikipedia)

Here is a peculiar bit of trivia about the ornithologist and painter John James Audubon (1785–1851): He didn’t like to grind his own watercolor pigments. In his 1826 journal, he confessed, “it makes me hot and fretful, and, I am convinced, has a bad effect on the mind of any artist.” Because of this, he was always on the look out for fine watercolor pigments, which were, as you might imagine, hard to come by in the 1820s.

When he came to Philadelphia in 1824, Audubon was introduced to Daniel B. Smith (1792–1883), an influential pharmacist who owned a popular store in downtown Philadelphia (est. 1819), and who was, in 1821, a founder of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy (now University of the Sciences). Smith was also a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences, where Audubon was eager to make allies (but not always successful; see my paper on the “Heart of Audubon“). As it turns out, Smith was well connected and knew just the guy for Audubon—a manufacturer of watercolors named George C. Osborn, to whom he referred the ornithologist with great success.

There is an unpublished letter from Audubon to Smith, dated July 12, 1824, that can be found among Smith’s papers in the Quaker and Special Collections of the Haverford College Library. And on that day, according to excerpts from his 1824 journal published by Buchanan (1868), Audubon was networking like a champ:


Audubon in 1826, painted by J. Syme (Source: Wikipedia)

“July 12. Visited by Mr. Gilpin, who thirty-three years ago discovered the lead ore on Mill Grove. Called on Dr. Harlan, an amiable physician and naturalist, and a member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Gave him some of my drawings, and he promised me letters to the Royal Academy of France, and afterwards nominated me for membership to the Academy in Philadelphia.” [This last part was not actually true.]

Needless to say, the industrious Audubon was very excited about the new paints he acquired from Osborn:

Philadelphia July 12th 1824

Dear Sir,

After close observation and use of the watter colors prepared by George C. Osborn—it gives me great Satisfaction to say that I consider them generally as the best I have met with in the United States, either Manufactured here or Imported from abroad.—They possess the good quality of Mellowing softly into their latest [?] teints and of retaining their Brilliancy even when exposed to the influence of the Sun.

I remain, Dr. [Dear] Sir, Respectfully Yours, Obd St. [Obediant Servant],

John James Audubon


This post was inspired by Katrina Rakowski, bird painter extraordinaire. And, as always, thanks to the wonderful staff in the Quaker and Special Collections at the Haverford College Library, especially Sarah Horowitz, Ann Upton, and Krista Oldham.

Origins of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

4 William Russell Birch (English artist, 1755-1834) New Lutheran Church on Fourth Street, Philadelphia. City of Philadelphia in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, as it appeared in the Year 1800

View from 4th St., Philadelphia, as it appeared in 1800. Artist: William Russell Birch (1755–1834)

In 1812, during a time when exceedingly few people showed any interest in wildlife or nature for its own sake, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (now of Drexel University) had its humble beginnings when John Speakman, a Quaker apothecary, and Jacob Gilliams, successful dentist and close friend of ornithologist Alexander Wilson, solicited some like-minded acquaintances to have regular meetings to compare their natural history collections and share ideas. Within about a month, they had assembled a group that included chemist John Shinn, Jr., distiller Nicholas Parmentier, physician and geologist Dr. Gerard Troost, entomologist and conchologist Thomas Say, and an Irishman named Dr. Camillus Mann, who served as secretary and about whom little is known. These seven men were the founders of the Academy. On April 16, 1812, physician Dr. John Barnes became the first elected member, and 13 more were elected by the end of the year. In the summer of 1814, the roster had grown to 46 elected members plus the founders, although by that time some members were deceased (like Wilson, who died in 1813) and one of the founders (Mann) was no longer affiliated with the Academy.

Mann served as secretary at the early meetings and is the only founder who was “struck off” the membership list. According to Nolan (1909, A Short History…), he had fled his native Ireland in 1798 and lived “for a time” in the United States. His association with the Academy lasted only two years, after which he apparently severed ties. Even the date of his death is unknown.

On August 24, 1814, Barnes wrote a letter to Reuben Haines III, the Quaker naturalist who was to replace Mann as corresponding secretary, that included a complete list of all the early members of the Academy and the dates of their elections [sidebar: Haines was proprietor of Wyck and the recipient of Audubon’s lost prospectus in 1825. See “The Heart of Audubon“]. Barnes also expressed frustration with Dr. Mann’s “negligence.” Remarkably, the letter and list still exist, albeit missing the addresses, which must have been on a second page now lost. They now reside in a rather obscure location (not at the Academy where they probably ought to be), in the papers of Reuben Haines’s great-grand nephew, in the Quaker and Special Collections of the Haverford College Library (Haverford, PA). The names that appear in Barnes’s flowing script include many of the progenitors of American arts and sciences, including Robert Hare (chemist), William Strickland (architecture), Alexander Wilson (ornithology), Isaiah Lukens (clock-maker), and Thomas Gilpin, Jr. (paper-maker, inventor).

Phila. 8th mo. 27th. 1814

Respected Friend,JBarnes_Letterto_ReubenHaines_1812

The enclosed list contains all the names of the corresponding members. Some have
and others have not been notified, and some have changed their places of residence since being elected. I have put down the places at which they resided when elected. I think it would be proper to notify all with a printed notice, accompanied by a letter stating the negligence of the former Secretary &c. Dr. Charles Moot the last mentioned on the list I notified with a printed notice as corresponding Sect. […] J. Gilliams being desirous of transmitting it on to him. Perhaps it would be prudent to consult the Academy respecting the European members. Would it be prudent to notify them, previous to transmitting them a diploma?

With sentiments of esteem, I remain


John Barnes