The journals of Ralph Bernard Simpson are a meticulous documentation of his scientific observations of 218 species of bird life in Warren County, Pennsylvania, with additional observations of bird life at Presque Isle Peninsula, Erie, Pennsylvania. Ralph B. Simpson was a wildlife expert and a remarkable naturalist, particularly of the avian realm.
His observations of nature are so complete that it appears some years were spent entirely in the field surveying and collecting. R.B. Simpson puts it best:
“A few of my notes were taken prior to 1890, but mostly since. During the 1890s, also 1901-02-03 and 1904, I seldom missed being out a morning during the spring migrations in March, April, and May, and whenever there was anything like a flight I usually spent the day down the river. In this way I got very complete migration notes, especially in regards to dates of first arrivals and last seen.”
above...Drawing from the Simpson Journals.
Simpson knew the terrain he traveled in great detail, and his uncommon powers of observation regarding nature were astounding. Simpson began honing these skills as a young man. At the time of his birth there were only 37 states in the Union—Ralph B. Simpson was born November 20, 1874, in Reading, Pennsylvania. He moved to Warren, Pennsylvania, with his family at the age of five.
Warren, in 1895, when Simpson was deep into his study of birds and doing much field work throughout the county, was a bustling, growing community. An 1895 promotional advertisement of Warren states the following facts, of which the community was undoubtedly proud:
“Warren is the county seat. Its county buildings (courthouse) cost $150,000. Warren has 13 churches; eight hotels; three and one-half miles of electric street carlines which will be doubled this year. Principal business streets are paved with brick. The town has nearly seven miles of sewerage. Streets are all lighted with electricity and gas. There is free mail delivery to all parts of the city. The YMCA will erect a $30,000 property this year.
“The population is growing: 1880, 2810; 1890, 3415; and 1895, 7,500. City properties, including city buildings, are valued at $27,500. Warren has four banks with combined capital and surplus of $805,000 and deposits of $2,225,000.
“There are four fine school buildings with 1600 scholars and 40 teachers. School property is valued at $147,120. The water works provide a bountiful supply of good, pure water. Fire protection includes six volunteer fire companies—a reserve reservoir with 130 pounds water pressure and one Silsby Steamer.
“There are three railroads. Freight and passenger business is the largest in point of receipts of any town between Buffalo and Pittsburg, Erie and Williamsport. Warren has natural gas—two competing companies with direct lines to the largest supply of natural gas in the United States. Manufacturers are over forty in number.
“The Warren library building and Opera House are owned by the municipality. They cost $80,000. The seating capacity of the Opera House is 960; the free library containing over 8,000 volumes. There are three daily newspapers and four weeklies.”
There is no doubt that Warren was a thriving community as Simpson was beginning his career. It is certain that these comforts and conveniences of civilization were duly noted by Simpson, but not of great importance, as it was to the remaining wilderness where the birds and beasts had dominion that Simpson was drawn each day. The book, Grass Flats, takes its title from such a favored and much mentioned haunt of Simpson’s. He says, “About 5 miles below town … is a large tract of wild land known along the river as the ‘Grass Flats.’ This has always been a favorite hunting and collecting ground with me.”
Regarding the Holboell’s Grebe (Colymbus holboelli), more commonly known today as the Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena), Simpson wrote:
“During the spring of 1893, which was a very good season for waterfowl in general, no less than 4 of these grebes came to my notice here. The first occurred on March 21. There had been a southerly wind with rain during the night, which had brought on a small flight of waterfowl. About 7:30 a.m. I saw a diver in the river above the bridge, by its size and silvery throat patch I knew it to be a Holboell’s. About that time a friend of mine came with a gun. We then went after Mr. Diver. He was laying in ambush on shore, while I went out in a boat and tried to work the grebe into him. Once I got within 50 feet of him myself, but it stayed away from the gun. Very soon another party appeared on the scene with a rifle and opened fire. I didn’t like this one little bit so I came to shore and gave him the whole river to shoot up. After an ineffectual bombardment the grebe got below the bridge and escaped. This one was a fine large adult.”
Concerning the Quail or Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus) Simpson offers this observation:
“I have always found the Quail tame and easily approached. In my opinion the Quail is a fine, cheery, sociable bird, and I fail to see any pleasure or sport in killing it.”
Simpson’s adventures were not without adversity as his misfortune with some mallards is revealed: “I once got into a fine mess of trouble while crawling onto a bunch of Mallards. I had been squirrel hunting with fine success one nice day in early October in the big woods back of the Grass Flats. I was coming back to the river during the middle of the day when I saw five Mallards feeding. I circled around and crawled out and up behind a big log. Under this log was a large Yellow-Jackets nest and right up into this I crawled.
They fairly swarmed onto me before I saw them, so intent was I watching the ducks. I had to jump up and beat it through the thickest brush. I couldn’t seem to shake them off. As it was I got stung no less than 6 times—good and proper. I never saw the ducks again.”
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Ralph Bernard Simpson is part of ornithological history. His journals and species accounts are part of the chronicles of the exploits of the early collectors and ornithologists, as the journals record the experience of one who helped make the history of the science. Warren County Historical Society makes the most of any historical records, life histories, and journals. These records are within their reach and Grass Flats will make them available to you. Look forward to purchasing Grass Flats at the Warren County Historical Society.
Wood Thrush nest, four eggs,
June 5, 1927, Ott Run,
Warren County, PA.
Four young Goshawk,
1921, Four Mile Run,
Warren County, PA.
In his accounts Simpson speaks of the status of species through seasons, habitat preferences, changes in avifauna, while at the same time offering a view of the natural world with a bit of whimsy—as in the following May 9, 1909, observations of the Screech Owl.
I found the second nest of the Screech Owl that I robbed this spring. I knew of an old Flicker’s hole nearby, and on going past I saw feathers about the edges so I investigated and found a Gray Screecher at home. She made no resistance so I reached in and counted five eggs under her, petted her, and left her.
Ornithology at this time was still in its infancy; in fact, the first systematic list of birds of Pennsylvania was not published until 1845. The earliest information was gained through collecting bird skins, nests, and eggs. Study skins still provide value in research on birds in the field as well as in taxonomic investigations. When Simpson first began collecting, 1890, Benjamin Warren’s book, a report authorized by the Commonwealth and titled The Birds of Pennsylvania, was just being published. This was the first thorough reference on the state’s birds and it marked a new era in ornithological history. Simpson’s scientific work contributed significantly to the next standard ornithological text, which was produced a half-century later, W.E. Clyde Todd’s Birds of Western Pennsylvania.
In the later years of his career, Simpson, along with his good friend Harry Granquist, used photography increasingly in the field. Simpson introduced Granquist to the world of birds on many field trips. Granquist became very interested in the feathered tribes and with Simpson produced many fine photographs. The addition of photography to Simpson’s documented observations and specimen collection is noted often in the journals. Photography was an exciting addition to his field methods, and Simpson thought nothing of climbing to perilous heights to obtain a fine photo, as evidenced by this entry regarding the Tufted Titmouse.
April 1, 1928, I saw and listened to one at Grass Flats. Later we saw it again and began watching and found there was a pair. Afterwards we watched for them and finally were rewarded by detecting them building. This nest on June 3 contained 7 eggs and we got a fine photo. It was 30 feet up in a Butternut tree—in an old downy woodpecker hole in a dead limb. The nest was a mass of shreds of bark, fur, and fine woody material. This is my first nesting record."
Maps are provided in Grass Flats to assist the reader on locations where data and species were gathered by Simpson. Some of Simpsons photographs are included in the book along with selected drawings of nests from the original journals. Maps and images are either original creations by the publisher or drawn from the extensive archives of the Warren County Historical Society. They are reproduced in Grass Flats with the kind permission of the Board of Directors.
It is the publisher’s intention that Grass Flats brings recognition to the life works of Ralph Bernard Simpson. It is also hoped that the information contained in the journals will benefit those working to preserve the natural world—and those recognizing the need for wild places. Simpson recognized early on, before there were any popular movements, that species became rare, some even extinct, through man’s destruction of habitat. He understood, as W.E. Clyde Todd believed, that education is the best way to do something for bird life.
Presque Isle on Lake Erie was also under Simpson watchful surveillance. In the journals he comments on the abundance or scarcity of wildlife throughout the seasons:
“At Erie, Pennsylvania, from sometime in November, 1931, to March 5, 1932, a large number of swans, at one time estimated to number from 1200 to 1500, wintered in the bay. On February 22 and March 1, on my visits there, I estimated 800 birds. It was a wonderful sight.”
---excerpts from book, © W.N. Hoover
Excerpts from the journals that are presented here were selected more for their narrative quality and subtle glimpse into the nature of the man who wrote them, rather than strictly scientific observation which are detailed and abundant.
Many thanks to Warren County Historical Society. Without their rich archives and supportive Board of Directors, Grass Flats could not have been written.