Ralph Hoffmann at a Lagoon Flat in Carpinteria:
California Least Tern Seen Feeding Its Young Offspring

Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek

Ballona Institute
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Playa del Rey, California 90293

(310) 821-9045

Volume 23
November, 1921

Least Tern Feeding Young on September 25.

- All during the early part of September, 1921, Least Terns (Sterna antilllarum) were still feeding young at Carpinteria, Santa Barbara County, California. On September 25, one adult was still feeding a single young bird. The adult brought small fish at intervals of about twenty minutes to a flat in a lagoon where the young bird waited. At the approach of the parent the young bird uttered the characteristic kit-tick, opened its mouth and spread its wings. After feeding the young bird, the parent always dipped its bill two or three times in the lagoon as it flew off. Once the parent alighted in the lagoon and bathed. The young bird joined it and both floated and splashed a moment or two.
Carpinteria, California
September 25, 1921

Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek


Remarkable indeed that Ralph Hoffmann observed the Least Tern in such detail. I have observed all of these same behaviors of the Least Tern at Malibu Lagoon in Los Angeles County, over the last 6 Septembers, between 1999 and 2005. It is relatively certain that the Least Tern has been doing these behaviors each September on our southern California coast from 1921 to 2005 at various lagoons. In fact, it is certain that the Least Tern has been a summer resident of southern California beaches and lagoons for centuries and millenia.

As headmaster for a private boys school in Carpinteria, Ralph Hoffmann was able to find time to do some birding and natural history studies with his field glass (aka binoculars), and make these excellent observations of the Least Tern in September. I wonder if he saw these same behaviors, when he lived in Missouri, because the Least Tern nests on islands on the Mississippi River? And I wonder if he also would have observed Least Terns at lagoons and beaches in Massachusetts, where he resided before moving to Missouri? In each of these three locations, scientists have separated the Least Tern into a unique subspecies. They are called the California Least Tern, Atlantic Least Tern, and Mississippi Least Tern by many naturalists.

I was intrigued by one particularl phrase in Hoffmann's Carpinteria article, namely, " a flat in a lagoon." He refers to this location in Carpinteria as a "lagoon" one other time in his article. It is interesting to note that he did not refer to this lagoon as a salt marsh, slough, estuary, or wetland. Of course, the terms "slough" and "salt marsh" were both in vogue by natural history writers in this era, as was the word "lagoon" so these terms could have been used too. However, I am not surprised that he did not refer to the lagoon at Carpinteria as a wetland or estuary.

Oddly enough, the term, "estuary", although it was used by a very few engineers and oceanographers since the 1860s in the U.S., it was seldom used by naturalists and biologists. It would not be until the late 1950s, when the word, "estuary" became used with more frequency, largely due in part to Joel Hedgpeth (marine biologist) asserting its use by repeating it in visible locations and communicating with scientists. It became somewhat popular to use in our natural history writings by biologists and naturalists soon afterword.

However, there were two California marine biologists (Edward Ricketts and George MacGinitie) that used term, "estuary" a couple of times, in fact, only one time each, in their writings of the 1930s. Interestingly, they never defined or explained the use of the word, they simply used it in a title of a chapter and the title of an article, respectively. Neither Ricketts, nor MacGinitie used "estuary" used it again by themselves in any of their writings. And only Ed Ricketts used "estuary" again, and very sparingly in another book, Sea of Cortez< (1941), which was coauthored with John Steinbeck, and so we do not know if it was Steinbeck or Ricketts that focused in on the use of term "estuary".

Yet, here again, the word "estuary" did not "catch-on" in subsequent natural history writings by them or other writers. It would remain for Joel Hedgpeth, about 20 years later, to spread the word "estuary" among marine biologists in California. It woud be several more decades before terrestrial vertebrate zoologists, botanists, and ecologists would adopt the word "estuary" as they stubbornly held onto the word "marsh" since a salt marsh, technically, borders the waters of an "estuary" but is not in fact part of the salt marsh. The word "salt marsh" seems to refer to land plants growing at the waters edge, and where also land animals, such as sparrows, mice, and butterflies can exist.

Just as with the word "estuary", the word "wetland" is a relatively new word in the vocabulary of biology, ecology, and natural history, unlike "marsh" and "lagoon", which have been around for centuries. The word "wetland" first shows up in the late 1940s wildlife management biology literature regarding "marsh birds" and plants in ponds and small lakes in the mid-west U.S. Slowly at first, the word "wetland" becomes used a little bit more in the 1950s and 1960s by the federal government, particularly in publications by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The word "wetland" due to its simplicity of understanding as a term slowly continues to grow throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then, "wetland" as a "buzz word" explodes onto the American scene in the 1990s, as journalists, politicians, environmentalists, and the public, all seem to learn about "wetlands" together, simultaneously. It is fascinating to note that the words, "lagoon", "marsh", and "estuary", all seem to slowly be falling off to the wayside now, as the term "wetland" continues to grow in its dominance, as the preferred term by news journalists, politicians, and even environmentalits, activists, scientists, and government bureaucrats. The word "wetland" and now with an "s" too, as "wetlands", this word, with simplicity of meaning and perception by people, just simply continues to grow in dominance in our language, prose, and literature.

Yet, in the nostalgic natural history writings of Ralph Hoffmann in the 1920s, "wetland" and "estuary" are nonexistent, and he focuses in on the word "lagoon" for his article, not just once, but twice. Whether Ralph Hoffmann is writing about Carpinteria, or some other location in California, he uses the words, lagoon or marsh, never "wetland" or "estuary". At Carpinteria lagoon in particular, I believe that Hoffmann intends to mean that exact location where he saw the Least Tern is an unvegetated sand flat in the lagoon, protected from the ocean currents with calm water surrounding it. Hoffmann's brief contribution to the journal, Condor is an interesting essay on the Least Tern. It is a little bit of natural history of Carpinteria from the 1920s, a bygone era, that has the ability to create and grow feelings of nostalgia. One can almost imagine being in Carpinteria in the 1920s walking on the beach at this lagoon with their "field glass" watching a Least Tern parent feeding its young offspring.

The 1920s was an era when quite a few naturalists and biologists moved to California from the midwest, as Ralph Hoffmann did in about 1920. He came from Missouri, where he had been a headmaster for 10 years, and previous to that he was a teacher in Boston, Massachusetts. Several other important naturalists and ecologists came to southern California from the midwest in the 1920s. They include the famous marine biologist, Edward Ricketts. He came from Chicago, Illinois, and was made famous through association with John Steinbeck, even becoming a character in the novel, Cannery Row, as "Doc". Ed Ricketts' own book, Between Pacific Tides, is still considered vital as an important reference book for naturalists doing natural history and sceintists doing research of coastal marine biology in southern California.

The 1920s also witnessed Edith Purer arriving on the seashore landscape of southern California. Like Ralph Hoffmann, she was also a school teacher. She became an important scientist of ecology, who studied plant ecology of sand dunes in Los Angeles County at Playa del Rey and the El Segundo Sand Dune. Later, she studied salt marsh ecology and vernal pool ecology in San Diego County. Her natural history explorations took her up and down the coast from Washinton, to Oregon and Baja California, and even Alaska. She came to study at USC in the late 1920s, having just finished a graduate degree in Ecology at the famous school of ecology in the University of Chicago.

Interestingly, Edward Ricketts also studied at the University of Chicago during this same era. Ricketts and Purer were just a few examples of several naturalists and scientists that came to California in the same 1920s era as Ralph Hoffmann. It could be an interesting story of natural history, to weave the writings of Hoffmann, Ricketts, and Purer together, into a tapestry, which would be a kaleidoscope into nature of the 1920s of a southern California seascape and landscape.