Ralph Hoffmann on Massachusetts Birds:
Cape Cod in Winter, December 28-31, 1894
Compiled and Edited by
Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
Ballona Institute & Wetlands Action Network
322 Culver Boulevard, Suite 317
Playa del Rey, California 90293
Auk, Volume XII: 188-189, April 1895, General Notes
Notes on the Winter Birds of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. - At a meeting of the Nuttall Club during the winter of 1892, Mr. O. Bangs reported the presence on Cape Cod of two birds which, so far as I know, have not hitherto been recorded as regular winter residents of any portion of New England. In a short visit to the Cape, last December, I found not only the birds reported by Mr. Bangs, but also two other species which are, I believe, unrecorded as winter residents of New England. The birds noted were the following.
Rallus virginianus. VIRGINIA RAIL. - One seen in Barnstable, Dec. 31, 1894. Mr. Bangs reported this bird as fairly numerous in December, 1892.
Circus hudsonius. MARSH HAWK. - Two were seen between Sandwich and Barnstable, Dec. 31, 1894.
Archibuteo lagopus sancti-johannis AMERICAN ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK. - A female of this species in the black phase was given me by Mr. J.F. Carleton of Sandwich. The bird was shot in Barnstable, Dec. 18, 1894.
Ammodramus sandwichensis savanna SAVANNA SPARROW. - Dec. 28, 1894, I found a Savanna Sparrow in a small tidal marsh in Sandwich. The next day, and again on the 30th, I found two, always in the same spot.
Spizella pusilla. FIELD SPARROW. - I saw a flock of eight Field Sparrows on the edge of the West Barnstable marshes, Dec. 31, 1894.
The only published records I am aware of for the wintering in New England of any of the birds mentioned above (except of course of the Rough-legged Hawk) are the two following for the Field Sparrow, - Auk, IV, p. 259 and X, p. 205. Four Field Sparrows were seen by Mr. Treat near Hartford, Conn., in January, 1886, and one in January, 1887. The second record is for Massachusetts; a bird seen by Mr. Torrey at Wellesley, Dec. 19, 1892, and again Jan. 8, 1893.
Cape Cod is, of course, exceptionally well fitted to shelter these birds in winter, as snow rarely lingers there for more than a few days and because there are extensive marshes which are always opened by the tide. It is probable, however, that similar conditions exist in Rhode Island and in Connecticut, so that it would be worth while for observers in those States to investigate the marshes there, unless indeed some, or all, of the above-mentioned birds are already known to winter along the Sound. - RALPH HOFFMANN, Belmont, Mass.
Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek
So much to interpret regarding Ralph Hoffmann, birding, history, and synergy. From a careful perusal of the above article, for example, we can ascertain that Ralph Hoffmann left the Boston Area (Belmont) after Christmas Day, arriving in Cape Cod region, first at Sandwich, on December 28, 1894. It is evident that he birdwatched in the salt marsh at Sandwich for three consecutive days (Dec. 28th, 29th, 30th). On December 31, New-Years Eve, he travelled eastward to Barnstable. He birded the salt marsh around Barnstable on New Years' Eve. He must have spent the evening at Barnstable on Cape Cod, and so spent part of New Years Day of 1895 on Cape Cod. It is clear from his article in the Auk that he birdwatched salt marshes and by default, the adjoining sand dunes for four consecutive days. It is apparent that Ralph Hoffmann had a predilection for salt marshes, or what we today call wetlands, as the term, wetlands did not yet exist in the 1890s. Wetlands is a term that emerges in our vocabulary in the late 1940s after World War II, but does not really come into common useage until the 1970s and 1980s, and finally catapulting into awareness during the 1990s and into the new Millenium. When he moved to California, he resided next to the coast at Carpenteria, which has a sizeable salt marsh and associated sand dune barrier beach. Ralph Hoffmann lived beside the Carpenteria salt marsh of Santa Barbara County, in southern California, with its wetlands and sand dunes for approximately 13 years until the time of his death. From 1919 to 1932, spanning his years of 49 to 62 years old, he became an expert on birds of southern California, particularly, and native plants of the Santa Barbara region and four of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. He died from a fall on a cliff on San Miguel Island in the summer of 1932, off the Santa Barbara coast, while searching for birds and plants.
I have recently enjoyed researching and reading the various writings of Mr. Hoffmann during his young adult years in Massachusetts, particularly his observations on Berkshire County, and this article on Cape Cod, because it is on the tidal marshes and their ability to remain unfrozen in winter. IT is amazing that these marshes can serve as refugia for birds during the cold winter in Massachusetts. I noted particularly the written passage about the Savanna Sparrow in the tidal marshes of Cape Cod. In California, there is a Savannah Sparrow that is restricted to the tidal marsh regions of southern California, which is called the Belding's Savannah Sparrow. When Ralph Hoffmann moved to southern California, he observed the Savannah Sparrow in the same kind of habitat as on Cape Cod. He must have considered the similarity of the habitat and ecological needs of a savannah sparrow in a Cape Cod Marsh with that of a Carpenteria Marsh near his home in Santa Barbara County, California.
It is clear that Ralph Hoffmann was interested in avian ecology, particularly distribution and movements with the seasons of harshness, such as winter. However, in other articles, he shows an interest that is focused on the spring and summer season with breeding birds in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. He grew and emerged in his natural philosophy as an ecologist and natural historian, with an interest in avian ecology, rather than avian taxonomy. He does not describe new species of birds, but instead he reports on their behavior and ecology, or what is often called scientific natural history. At the time of his visit to Cape Cod in 1894, Ralph Hoffmann was 24 years old, still a young man, and a teacher in Boston. He was a recent graduate of Harvard, two years earlier in 1892, with a degree in Latin/English, not in the sciences. He would continue birding throughout his life, an amateur hobby that began as a child in Stockbridge (Berkshire County), Massachusetts. His interest in scientific natural history of birds and plants, together with an interest in conservation and being active in the Massachusetts Audubon Society, lasted about 20 years, before moving first to Missouri, and then on to California, two years later, where he would continue his scientific natural history studies of birds and plants for the rest of his life.