Ralph Hoffmann on Massachusetts Birds:
Belmont in Autumn, 1898

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 XVI, Number 2: 196, April, 1899, General Notes
Late Migrants and Stragglers in Eastern Massachusetts. Many birds stayed unusually late in Eastern Massachusetts this Autumn, owing very likely to the mild weather which we enjoyed during October and most of November. Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, and Field Sparrows, which generally disappear in the first week of November, were seen as late as the 13th of that month. The Blackbirds also prolonged their stay longer than usual; I saw a flock of at least thirty Cowbirds in Belmont associated, upt to November 13, with over two hudnred Red-wings and some Rusty Grackles. On November 1, Mr. Faxon and saw a Lincoln's Finch, and on November 5 I saw an immature White-crowned Sparrow. The height of the migration of both of these birds is about October 1, and the latest dates hitherto noted for either are from a week to ten days earlier than those above recorded. On November 3, I saw a Black-throated Green Warbler in Cambridge.

There have been also three interesting stragglers in this vicinity during November. On the 2nd of November I found a female Wilson's Blackcap in Belmont; the bird stayed in the same locality till November 20, and uttered when startled a curious wren-like kek, kek, which I have never before heard. Believing that the bird would eventually starve or freeze to death, I asked a friend on the 20th to shoot it.

On November 5th I saw a European Goldfinch (Carduelis) in Arlington. The bird behaved like any wild bird. On October 26, and again on November 17, I saw in Belmont a Mockingbird. I placed food near the spot where I saw the bird, but have not since seen it. - RALPH HOFFMANN, Belmont, Mass.

Robert Jan 'Roy' van de Hoek

Ralph Hoffmann was becoming very active in birding in Belmont and Cambridge near Boston in 1899. He is demonstrating the use of bird sounds to aid in identification. He seems to be a birder of the very late 19th Century, who could very well be with us here today in the 21st Century? Is he in Massachusetts or in California in the 21st Century? Is he in Boston or Los Angeles?

He signs the article in the Auk with his name and city orign as being from Belmont. Similarly, four years earlier in 1895, in an article about winter birds at Cape Cod, he penned the article in Auk with his name and city origin as being from Belmont. Therefore, we can conclude that Ralph Hoffmann and his wife, and children, lived in Belmont from at least 1895-1899, if not longer. He was a school teacher during these years, while keeping his keen interest in birds. This is the location where he wrote his classic book on the birds of New England. He also wrote several articles about plants from the Belmont home. I wonder exactly where in Belmont did Ralph Hoffmann reside? I wonder if his original home still exists? If so, I believe it would qualify to be on the National Register of Historic Places with the National Park Service. The home would qualify for the very important man named Ralph Hoffmann and his great creativity of writings on birds and plants from this home, However, I presume that this home has been eliminated and now has a new home or business in its place. Who knows?

So much to interpret regarding Ralph Hoffmann, birding, history, and synergy. Although in this article about late migrants and stragglers, I cannot ascertain his travels very well, and I an say that he was active birding from home in his own backyard. As for his Cape Cod article, we can ascertain from a careful perusal that he departed Belmont after Christmas Day in 1894, 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. He must have returned to Belmont in early 1895. It is clear from the 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 Carpinteria, which has a sizeable salt marsh and associated sand dune barrier beach. Ralph Hoffmann lived beside the Carpinteria 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.

In summary, whether he lived in Belmont or Carpinteria, he stayed in one town for many years. I believe that the home in Carpinteria is also eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places with the National Park Service. Of course, it depends on whether the home still stands in Carpinteria, just as with the home in Belmont and whether it still stands.

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 in Belmont The relevance of Belmont and Carpinteria as his two homes on opposite sides of the continent can be realized as historic homes, at least in hope. Both Belmont and Carpinteria link to Cape Cod, because the Cape is on the tidal marshes and their ability to remain unfrozen in winter. Just as Cape Cod is a refuge for winter birds, his Belmont backyard was a refuge for the Carolina Wren. And the Carpinteria marsh is a refuge for endangered birds. It is amazing that these marshes and backyards can serve as refugia for birds. I noted particularly the written passage about the Savannah Sparrow in the tidal marshes of Cape Cod. In California, there is a 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 the Savannah Sparrow 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 Carpinteria 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.