Ralph Hoffmann Anthology

Naturalist, Ornithologist, Botanist, Ecologist, Teacher, Writer, Museum Director
California (Ventura, Carpinteria, Mono Lake, Modoc Plateau, Eagle Lake, Playa del Rey, Imperial Valley)
Massachusetts (Berkshire County, Cape Cod, Ipswich, Stockbridge, Boston, Belmont,)
Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, England, Germany and Nederland

Edited by
Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Š2003, revised 2005

Ballona Institute, Los Angeles Audubon Society, Wetlands Action Network & Sierra Club
322 Culver Boulevard, Suite 317
Playa del Rey, California 90293

(310) 821-9045

Ralph Hoffmann (1870-1932) was an expert naturalist with a special interest in native birds and native plants. Therefore, he was a special type of scientist called an ornithologist and botanist. His early childhood interest in natural history, particularly birds, was in western Massachusetts. He was born, raised and educated at Stockbridge in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. He wrote books and articles about the flora and birds of Berkshire County.

At 40 years old, he moved with his family to Missouri. Nine years later, he moved to Carpinteria, California. He became the headmaster of a private school, for about 6 years, but then became the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. He resided in southern Santa Barbara County in Carpinteria, which is adjacent to Ventura County, and only about 90 miles northwest of the city of Los Angeles. In California, just as in Massachusetts, Ralph Hoffmann's intense curiousity and passion for natural history, particularly birds and plants, led to his exploration and writing a new book about birds of the Pacific coast states. No doubt, employment at the Santa Barbara Museu of Natural History facilitated the writing of his field guide. While director, he had the opportunity to give tours of the Museum to various noteworthy people. For example, there is an interesting photograph showing Ralph Hoffmann and his wife leading Albert Einstein and his wife in a tour of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Ralph Hoffmann's continuing interest in native plants, just as in Massachusetts, led to his research and field trips to the Santa Barbara Islands and elsewhere in Santa Barbara County. He could see the islands from his home and work looming large and close just off the coast of Carpinteria and Santa Barbara. These four islands are now part of the Channel Islands National Park. He explored these islands, while director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. His life would come to an end while exploring one of these islands, San Miguel, for unusual native plants. As a field naturalist, what more fitting way to die than to be in the "field" on an "island" doing "research" on one of his favorite subjects. While searching for a native plant on a cliff, apparently a buckwheat, and perhaps his eyes also always keenly searching the sky and land for birds, he slipped and fell from the cliff doing scientific natural history.

During the 1920s, particularly from 1922 to 1927, Ralph Hoffmann traveled widely across the state of California in search of birds. He visited such places, as Eagle Lake (Lassen County), Pit River (Modoc County), Salton Sea (Imperial County), Mono Lake (Mono County), and Playa del Rey marsh (Los Angeles County - i.e. Ballona Wetlands). On September 18, 1923, he visited the Ballona wetlands, Del Rey marshes. Mr. L.E. Wyman, from the Los Angeles Musuem accompanied Mr. Hoffmann. The two museum scientists discovered an unsual bird, the rare pectoral sandpiper, in the Del Rey Marsh at Ballona. They reported their discovery to Joseph Grinnell, ornithologist and editor of Condor, who reported their finding in the scientific journal, Condor, in 1924 (volume 26)..

Ralph Hoffmann's 1927 book on birds of California, Oregon, and Washington, entitled "Birds of the Pacific States" is a good source to discover Ralph Hoffmann's passion for the natural history of birds. The preface of his book was penned in Carpinteria in January 1927. He acknowledged many ornithologists that assisted him including Joseph Grinnell and Harry Swarth. The ornithologist of the Los Angeles Musuem named L.E. Wyman was acknowledged, but interestingly, the senior ornithologist of the Los Angeles Museum, George Willett, was not acknowledged. This book remained in print through the 1950, fully 30 years past its original publication. Ralph Hoffmann's wife, Gertrude Hoffmann, kept the copyright in the family, for more than 20 years past Ralph Hoffmann's death. Ralph Hoffmann dedicated this book to his mother and father, Irene and Bernard Hoffmann. The first paragraph of the Introduction is quite appropriate to quote here as it shows his passion for nature and natural history, particularly birds, even though he is also noted for his knowledge of the flora of the Channel Islands of California off the Santa Barbara and Ventura County coast:

"Cicero in a famous passage in one of his orations extols the delights of the study of literature, asserting that it forms the taste of youth, delights the old age, is an ornament in prosperity, a solace in adversity, accompanies us to the country, and travels with us to foreign lands. We might easily paraphrase the orator's words and apply them to the study of birds. It develops keen observation in youth and is a resource in old age, even for the invalid if he can but have a porch or a window for a post of observation. Birds become the companions of our work in the garden and our walks; martins and nighthawks or a gray-winged gull sail across the sky even opposite a dentist's window. Birds in a new region are simply birds to the uninitiated; to one who has known the birds at home, a journey offers an opportunity to make new friends. If a parent wishes to give his children three gifts for the years to come, I should put next to a passion for truth and a sense of humor, love of beauty in any form. Who will deny that birds are a conspicuous manifestation of beauty in nature?"

What a fine paragraph for the Introduction did Ralph Hoffmann write and it must be noted that he was a naturalist and a naturalist seeks beauty and knowledge in all of mother nature and her varied ways. During the brief research that I have conducted into the naturalist's life of Ralph Hoffmann was a small discovery that Ralph Hoffmann gave a personal tour of the new Museum of Natural History to Albert Einstein. There is a photograph that shows Hoffmann and Einstein and their wives in front of the Museum. The narrative text accompanying the photograph describes that Einstein enjoyed the tour of the Museum, which is a wonderful reflection on the directorship of Ralph Hoffmann. Albert Einstein appreciated the Museum even though he knew very little about the natural history of the fauna and flora of California and her ecology. Yet Ralph Hoffmann gave Albert Einstein a glimpse into the natural world that stirred the imagination of Einstein. When the tour was finished, Einstein asked Hoffmann if he had seen the entire Museum. Hoffmann replied, "no, there is more." Einstein then toured the rest of the Museum with Hoffmann.

The obituary of Ralph Hoffmann by T.S. Palmer, an editor of Auk, is a most appropriate way to learn more about Ralph Hoffmann and his important contributions to a knowledge of California birds and native plants of the Channel Islands. The obituary is only four paragraphs and was published in the October issue of Auk, volume 49, page 518-519. Here then is the complete narrative excerpted by T.S. Palmer:

"Ralph Hoffman[n], a Member of the American Ornithologist's Union, met a tragic death in a fall from a cliff on San Miguel Island, Calif., July 21, 1932. He had gone to the island with W.F. Daniell, of Montecito, and James McMillan, of Los Angeles, in search of fossils and seed plants, and while attempting to scale a steep cliff, two miles from Cuyler Harbor, met with the accident which resulted in his death."

"Mr. Hoffman[n] was the son of Ferdinand and Caroline Bullard Hoffmann. He was born in Stockbridge, Mass., November 30, 1870, educated at Williston Academy and graduated from Harvard University in 1890, and in 1894 he married Miss Gertrude Wesselhoeft, of Cambridge, Mass. By profession he was a teacher and began his work in the Brown and Nichols School in Cambridge. In 1910 he became headmaster of the Country Day School in Kansas City, Mo., in 1917 he moved to St. Louis where he bcame headmaster of the Country Day School, and three years later accepted a position in the Santa Barbara School for Boys near Carpenteria, Calif. and in 1926 he was elected Director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, a position which he held at the time of his death."

"Mr. Hoffman[n] was an enthusiastic ornithologist, botanist, and all around naturalist. One of his first publications was a memorial to Frank Bolles, prepared for a committee of the Nuttall Ornithological Club in 1894. He also read before the Club the results of his observations made in Germany in the same year, which appeared in 'The Auk' under the title 'Summer Birds of the Rhine,' (1896), pp.297-312). He was co-author with Walter Faxon of 'The Birds of Berkshire county, Massachusetts,' 1900, and from time to time contributed notes to 'The Auk,' 'Bird Lore,' and 'The Condor,' chiefly on the birds of Massachusetts, Missouri, and California. In 1904 he published his 'Guide to the Birds,' and in 1927 his 'Birds of the Pacific States.' In botany he contributed occasionally to 'Rhodora,' published a 'Flora of Berkshire County, Massachusetts,' in 1922, and in 1930, in cooperation with several other collaborators the 'Cacti and Other Succulents' of the Santa Barbara region. The first part of his 'Notes on the Flora of the Channel Islands, Santa Barbara County,' was in press at the time of his death and the paper will appear in installments in the 'Bulletin' of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. In the course of his scientific work he became identified with several ornitholgoical and botanical organizations. He was elected an Associate of the American Ornithological Union in 1893 and Member in 1901, a member of the New England Botanical Club, the Nuttall Ornithological Club, and a life member of the Cooper Ornithological Club."

"By nature and by training Hoffman[n] was an ideal museum director. Cheerful, enthusiastic, companionable, and experienced teacher, he knew how to enlist the interest of young people and the public and to interpret the facts of natural history in a way to attract the attention and arouse the curiosity of even the casual observer. In recent years his activities were devoted chiefly to botany but he still maintained his deep interest in birds. T.S. Palmer."

After moving to southern California, Ralph Hoffmann kept a keen interest in birds and traveled widely in California. These travels can be documented by his published articles on bird observations in the journal called Condor. I found these articles by searching the "Ten Year California Ornithology Bibliography" compiled by Joseph Grinnell (1927, 1939). Quite often, Grinnell wrote a brief comment next to the citation. Grinnell listed 24 articles written about California birds by Ralph Hoffmann. I have compiled a preliminary chronological list of these Hoffmann articles with Grinnell's "comments" in bold text.

Preliminary Chronological List of Bird Articles by Ralph Hoffmann with Joseph Grinnell's Comments
1. Christmas Bird Count, Santa Barbara. Bird Lore 22:44-45.
2. A Large Flock of Swans Wintering at Santa Barbara. Condor 22:77.
3. A Raven Pellet. Auk 37:453-454 ["From Santa Cruz Island"].
4. Notes on Some Birds of Santa Cruz Island, California. Condor 22:187-188 ["Mention of six species"].

5. Dipper Nesting in Santa Barbara County, California. Condor 23:137.
6. Western Bluebird Nesting on the Sea-coast. Condor 23:138 ["At Carpenteria"].

7. Notes from the Southern Border of California. Condor 24:20 ["On Mountain Plover, Lark Bunting, etc."].
8. Field Notes from Riverside and Imperial Counties. Condor 24:101.

9. Notes from Santa Barbara. Condor 26:75 ["On Cassin Purple Finch, Eastern Kingbird, and California Shrike"].
10. Notes on the Flight Performance of the Wilson Snipe. Condor 26:175-176 ["As observed at Eagle Lake, Lassen County"].

11. Wood Ibis in Ventura County. Condor 28:47 ["On Santa Clara River in July"].
12. Man-o'-War-Bird in Ventura County. Condor 28:102.

13. Nesting of the Sandhill Crane in Modoc County. Condor 29:118 ["About twenty miles from Alturas"].
14. The Gila Woodpecker at Holtville, Imperial County. Condor 29:162.
15. The Lewis Woodpecker Apparently Nesting at Gustine. Condor 29:165.
16. Cassiar Junco Wintering in Southern Santa Barbara County. Condor 29:171.

17. An Oven-bird in Santa Barbara County. Condor 30:327 ["One seen near Los Olivos, May 13, 1928"].

18. Christmas bird census from Santa Barbara. Bird Lore 31:64-65.

19. Christmas Bird census. Bird Lore 32:65.
20. California Condor. The Gull 12:6 ["Ten individuals seen on San Rafael Mountain, Santa Barbara County"].

21. Christmas bird census... Bird Lore 33:77-78.
22. Saw-whet Owl and California Woodpecker on Santa Cruz Island. Condor 33(4):171.

23. Christmas bird census... Bird Lore 34:78-79.
24. Bird Notes from Santa Cruz Island, California. Condor 34:190.

Ralph Hoffmann is commemorated and acknowledged in science via a scientific name of a native plant so rare that it is on the endangered species list. It is a Rock Cress of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) that occurs in only a few locations on Santa Cruz Island. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is conducting research to attempt to recover this species and the federal government has written a report about its status and history of discovery which includes a discussion of Ralph Hoffmann. Here are some excerpts of that federal report that refer to this native plant as "Hoffmann's Rock Cress" and which scientists have named Arabis hoffmannii:

"Nomenclatural History
Hoffmann's rock-cress (Arabis hoffmannii) was first described by Philip Alexander Munz as Arabis maxima var. hoffmannii in 1935 based on specimens collected by Ralph Hoffmann at the "sea cliffs east of Dick's Harbor," now known as Platts Harbor, on Santa Cruz Island in 1932 (Rollins 1936). However, the first collection of this rock-cress was made by T.S. Brandegee in 1888 from an unspecified location on Santa Cruz Island. In 1936, Reed Clark Rollins elevated the taxon to species status by publishing the name Arabis hoffmannii. This nomenclature is upheld in the most recent treatment for the genus (Rollins 1993)."

Arabis hoffmannii is a slender herbaceous perennial in the Mustard (Brassicaceae) family. The 1 to several stems reach 0.6 m (2 ft.) high, and have slightly toothed basal leaves. The white flowers, composed of 4 petals 1 cm (0.4 in.) long, are found at the tips of the stems. The slightly curved fruits are borne on long stalks and enclose 2 rows of seeds in each of 2 chambers. The only other rock-cress that occurs on the islands, Arabis glabra var. glabra, is a taller plant with cream-colored flowers, and occurs as an alien in open meadows and slopes."

"Distribution and Ecology
Since Brandegee's collection was made in 1888, very few collections of Arabis hoffmannii have been made. On Santa Cruz Island, Reid Moran made a collection from the "Central Valley" in 1950, and Jim McPherson collected the plant near Centinela Grade, possibly the same location, in 1967 (S. Junak, pers. comm. 1993). It was not until 1985 that Junak relocated a population at this location (Schuyler 1986). For many decades, Hoffmann's original collection site, near Platts Harbor on Santa Cruz Island, was in "an area of intense feral animal [sheep] disturbance," and no plants could be found (Hochberg et al. 1980a). However, surveys conducted by TNC in 1985 were successful in relocating 2 small populations, one composed of 3 individual plants, near Platts Harbor (Schuyler 1986)."

"According to his field notes, Reid Moran collected Arabis hoffmannii from Anacapa Island in 1941 "on the slopes above Frenchy's Cove" (S. Junak, pers. comm. 1993). However, no specimens from this collection have been found in herbaria with known collections of island species, and recent surveys by Junak have failed to relocate the plant on Anacapa Island (S. Junak, pers. comm. 1993). Ralph Hoffmann reported the plant from "the bank above Water Canyon" on Santa Rosa Island in 1930, but numerous recent surveys have failed to locate any plants on that island (S. Junak, pers. comm. 1993; Is Rindlaub a pers. comm.? Our list of references does not include anything from 1994 attributed to Rindlaub. K. Rindlaub, 1994)."

"Arabis hoffmannii is currently known from 3 small populations that collectively cover less than 1 acre on Santa Cruz Island. The 2 populations near Platts Harbor are located on rocky volcanic cliffs along a north-facing canyon on lands owned by TNC. Because of their inaccessibility and friability of the volcanic rock, the 2 cliff populations have not been thoroughly surveyed. Only a few dozen plants have been directly observed, but the cliffs may support additional individuals. The population near Centinela Grade is growing on Santa Cruz Island volcanics and is associated with giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea), Santa Cruz Island buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens), and coastal prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis), on lands owned and managed by TNC. When Junak relocated this population, approximately 30 individuals were seen. TNC has monitored this population since 1990, with fewer than 30 plants observed each year, except in 1994 when a flush of seedling establishment brought the population to 78 individuals (Klinger 1994)."

The major threats to Arabis hoffmannii are loss of soils, habitat degradation, and predation resulting from feral pig rooting. Because of the small numbers of populations and individuals, the taxon is also vulnerable to stochastic (random) extinction by such events as storms, drought, landslide, or fire. Small numbers of isolated populations and individuals also make the taxon vulnerable to reduced reproductive vigor."

In conclusion, it is good that Ralph Hoffmann was recognized with this rare native plant, because he gave his life trying to find a native plant when he fell from a cliff on San Miguel Island. Even as an expert on the flora of the Channel Islands, Ralph Hoffmann was not able to visit the four southern Channel Islands of Catalina, San Clemente, San Nicolas, and Santa Barbara. Thus, he is not a posthumous member of the "All Eight Channel Islands Club" but he did do valuable scientific exploration of the four northern Channel Islands of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. He is in good company with other early scientists, most of whom did not visit all eight Channel Islands. For example, the great botanist of California, Willis Jepson only visited two Channel Islands. And the greatest ornithologist of California, Joseph Grinnell, visited six Channel Islands. Yet both of these scientist contributed greatly to our knowledge of the Channel Islands native flora. I suspect that had Ralph Hoffmann lived longer, he would have gone in search of birds and plants on Santa Catalina at least, if not also San Clemente, San Nicolas, and Santa Barbara.

Preliminary List of Selected Writings by Ralph Hoffmann in Chronological Order

1895 ... Notes on the Winter Birds of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Auk 12:188-189.

1895 ... Summer Birds of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Auk 12:87-89.

1899 ... Three plants of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Rhodora 1:229-230.

1900 ... The Birds of Berkshire County. Co-authored with Walter Faxon. 60 pages.

1904 ... Notes on the flora of Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Rhodora 6:202-206.

1920 ... Notes on Some Birds of Santa Cruz Island, California. In Condor, volume 22, page 187-188.

1920 ... A Large Flock of Swans Wintering at Santa Barbara. In Condor, volume 22, page 77.

1920 ... A Raven Pellet. In Auk, volume 37, page 453-454.

1922 ... Flora of Berkshire County. Proceedings of the Boston Society of Natural History 36:171-382.

1922 ... Field Notes from Riverside and Imperial Counties. In Condor, volume 24, page 101.

1927 ... Birds of the Pacific States. Houghton Mifflin Company. The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 353 pages.

1929 ... Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. In Madroņo volume 1, page 224-225.

1931 ... Saw-whet Owl and California Woodpecker on Santa Cruz Island. In Condor, volume 33 (4):171.

1932 ... Notes on the Flora of the Channel Islands Off Santa Barbara. Southern California Academy of Sciences Bulletin.

1932 ... Bird Notes from Santa Cruz Island, California. In Condor, volume 34: 190.