History of the Essex County Ornithological Club

Section 1

Historians of Essex County Birds and the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts (ECOC) 
by Jim MacDougall

From Bird Observer

My first ECOC Ipswich River trip was in 1974. This was my introduction to serious birding. Some of the old timers were there who could identify birds by ear. Actually they could identify more by ear than I knew by sight. Some had lost their hearing and were so well along in years that they had to be transported overland from bridge to bridge in a big old Buick convertible and wait for those of us who were floating down in canoes. At each bridge we’d compare notes. They were not so feeble as to show us a roosting nighthawk straddling a branch or the Prothonotary Warbler perched by the river. I had many firsts that day but what impressed me the most was later on in the evening when I was introduced to the record-keepers. After the buffet dinner, everyone pulled out their small bound notebooks and the day’s tally began. The reminiscing was more fun than the actual birding. There were intellectual sparring, a great deal of laughter and a few omnisciently raised eye-brows at the announcement of single-observer rarities. The usual good-natured camaraderie one develops from shared experience. As the records show we had 132 species for that week-end thanks to the efficient recording of Don Alexander, a member of ECOC since 1936. For this group had been keeping track of the birds along the Ipswich River since 1906, when the first river trip was run and it was ten years later that the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts (ECOC) was founded. Don was not the longest standing member on that day. Believe it or not some of those old-timers in the Buick were charter members.

For the period before ECOC, the history of birds in the County and the men who kept record of their occurrences is best acquired from the writings of Dr. Charles W. Townsend, who in 1905 wrote the Birds of Essex County, published by the Nuttall Ornithological Club. It is ostensibly from this work that we can look back over the previous three hundred years at the bird trends within this small area north of Boston.

Townsend’s Account 1616-1904

“The Birds of Essex County” is an annotated list of the birds including descriptions of notable habitats along the coast, an Ornithological History of Essex County (1616-1904) and records from local lighthouse keepers. Townsend’s historical chapter compiles nearly all the writings of Essex County bird observations from William Brewster, John Josselyn, Thomas Nuttall, Howe and Allen, William Wood and Francis Higginson dating back to 1630 as well as many others. These men, without knowing the impact of their diligence, have created a body of knowledge that exclaims we take notice of the trends of the past and demands the necessity of keeping records today. The picture of the past three hundred years is a disappointing one with only an occasional turn-around that offer a glimmer of hope conserving the diversity and abundance of birds that Essex County at one time hosted.

When one reads this chapter on the history of birds locally, it is difficult not to become saddened. To think that once upon a time men, women and children could simply look up at millions and millions of Passenger Pigeons, it is an outrage that none exist today. Can you imagine the sight of it. Not the paltry hundreds of geese that we race out of the kitchen door to marvel at as they fly overhead. But literally hours upon hours of a sky full of pigeons flying over during spring and fall migration. Can you in your wildest dreams, imagine it! Townsend writes: “The Passenger Pigeon, now rapidly becoming a bird of the past, was in former days very conspicuous from its vast numbers. Higginson writing in Salem, in about 1630, says: ‘Upon the eighth of March from after it was faire daylight until eight of the clock in the forenoon, there flew over all the towns in our plantacons soe many flocke of doues, each flock contayning many thousands, and soe many that they obscured the light that passeth credit, if but the truth should be written.’ Wood, writing in 1634, says: ‘I have seen them fly as if the Aeyerie regiment had been pigeons; seeing neyther beginning nor ending, length, or breadth of these Millions of Millions… so they continued for foure or five houres together.'” The last seen in Essex County were a pair on August 17, 1904 by Mr. John Sears, curator of Geology, Minerology and Botany at the Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass. at Kent’s Island in Newbury. The last one died 1914 in Cincinnati.

Of the Heath Hen, an eastern subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken, Townsend, “It was formerly ‘so common on the ancient bushy site of the city of Boston, that laboring people or servants stipulated with their employers not to have the Heath-Hen brought to table oftener that a few times in the week!'” The last one died on Martha’s Vineyard in 1932.

Great Auk were so common and fearless that sailors would herd them across their breeding islands, onto gang planks leading into their boats to compliment the stores. Please take a moment and close your eyes, try to picture what one Great Auk looks like let alone how it may walk. The last specimen was found dead at Trinity Bay, Newfoundland in 1853.

Mixed among the tales of extinction, are records of birds which have been extirpated as breeding birds and migrants from the county and the state: Sandhill crane was common during colonial times and thought to breed here. Tundra Swan, Eskimo and Long-billed Curlews, were also common as migrants at the time of the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Upland plover, Common Snipe, Purple Martins were already on the wane in 1905 although a few decades before they are coined as common breeders. Marsh Harrier, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, White-eyed Vireo, Orchard Oriole and Yellow-breasted Chat were common breeders in 1905.

In Townsend’s Supplement to the Birds of Essex County Massachusetts, 1920, he begins to paint a rosier picture for the existence of birds in the future. A number of laws had been enacted between the turn of the century and 1920 which substantially reduced the gunning seasons for shorebirds and waterfowl. Concurrently, National Audubon’s crusade to eliminate hunting of terns and egrets for the millinery industry had been successful.

Both of these books can be found in many local libraries. I recommend that you take the time to look them up and discover the passages relative to your special interests. Like Forbush, Brewster and Bent, these are writings that every birder and local wildlife professional should read.

History of ECOC

The Essex County Ornithological Club founded in 1916 actually got its start on the Ipswich River in the cane seats of a couple of canoes owned by Ralph Lawson and Gil Emilio of Salem ten years earlier. With trolleys, trains and locally-based liveries, it was convenient to catch a trolley from Salem out to Howe’s Station in Middleton, pick up one’s canoe “parked” at the waterhole below Spofford’s Boathouse on the river and canoe down to Ipswich center. Mr. Spofford would pick up the canoes and ferry them back up to Middleton. Lawson, Emilio and company would board the Boston bound train and depart for Salem. And so the tradition began, and has continued to this day with the annual Ipswich River trip of ECOC.

The club published a bulletin on an annual basis from 1919 to 1938. Contributors included Gil Emilio, Ralph Lawson, Charles Townsend, John Phillips, Norman Brown and Ludlow Griscom among others. The art work was supplied by their first president, Frank Benson, internationally acclaimed portrait and wildlife artist. Within the Bulletin one can also read of accounts of a young R. T. Peterson tagging along with Griscom and Lawson. Membership averaged about 65 members, all men, until about 1975 when women were voted into membership.

Topics covered in the Bulletin included birds sighted on each annual Ipswich River trip, compilations of the early Danvers Christmas counts, a five year comparison of Xmas Counts at Cape Ann and Cape Cod, reports of land acquired by the Federation of New England Bird Clubs and the initiation of big-days by Ludlow Griscom.

A feature in the Bulletin is “Around the Big Table”. The round table served as their meeting place in the Peabody Museum of Salem, accounts of rarities and behavioral notes on birds were kept and included for the membership.

To give you, the reader, a taste of the accurateness of their observations and the flavor of the times, I wish to include some brief accounts, verbatim, in hopes that you will wish to keep your accounts and that we can stimulate such anecdotes for inclusion in the Bird Observer. Those that I have picked have interesting information for those who understand some of the historical dynamics of bird populations. Some highlights of the ECOC Bulletin:

J.W. Goodridge (1920) “Bird Notes on Plum Island”. “April 24th and 25th when ECOC visited my camp at the island we found five Piping Plover,” and “While on a fishing trip, off to sea of Plum Island, May 28th, I saw my first Terns for 1920. There were both Wilson (Common) and Roseate and with them were Herring, Bonaparte and Laughing Gulls, all feeding upon the sand eels, driven to the surface by schools of pollack and codfish. The Terns were being pestered by their enemies, the Jaegers.”

Albert Morse, curator of Natural History at the Peabody Museum (1921): “I wish to place on record a New England example of Franklin’s Gull… in the Essex County collection of the PMS. It is labeled ‘o, Salem, Oct. 28,1885, Geo. O. Welch”.

A. P. Stubbs (1921): “One of the most pleasant recollections of woodland life in my younger days is my acquaintance with the Yellow-breasted Chat, which during the years 1885-1895 was very plentiful in this part of the state. In one season I personally knew of as many as twelve pairs breeding in Lynn, Salem and Peabody. Nearly all the nests were in thick clumps of young barberry bushes.”

A. B. Fowler (1922) “The Drumming of the Snipe. It was just before dusk on April 25,1922, when a party of Club members gathered about a clump of bushes on the edge of Nichol’s brook, (Middleton). The object of the meeting was to listen to the drumming of the Snipe and, if possible, observe birds in this aerial performance. The men composed themselves, and there was as much silence as the different dispositions of the group would allow. There were never more than five men talking at once.

The sun had long since set and night was drawing its curtain across the afterglow and in the swamp the thrushes, song sparrows and other birds were singing to the passing day. Down the road a large dog pointed his nose to heaven and tried to break all long-distance records for uproarious vocalization. Different sounds, both tame and wild, were identified and commented upon, until there came a lull; even the talkative members of the club were silent, and then from above was heard a sound similar to that made by the air rushing through the wings of a domestic pigeon. The Snipe had arrived and everything else was forgotten. During the next half hour the air was filled with drumming of the Snipe and the conjectures of the party. The darkness made it impossible to catch but fleeting glimpses of the birds as they darted downward from the sky or fluttered to the ground. No one was able to see how the sound was made, but everyone heard it and caught an occasional quick view of the birds. Some saw one bird, others saw more, and one man went so far as to declare he saw five Snipe, thereby drawing on himself sundry observations more pointed than scientific.”

Charles W. Townsend (1923) “Birds in Their Relation to Changes in Vegetation. The avifauna of Essex County, Mass., is principally that of the transition zone, but with a few birds of the Upper Austral, it includes also a number of those of the Canadian zone. Juncos and White-throated Sparrows and probably Myrtle Warblers occasionally nest within its limits, and Red Crossbills, Canada Warblers, Winter Wrens, Brown Creepers, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Golden-crowned Kinglets have all been recorded as breeding in the county. The less typically Canadian birds like Hairy Woodpeckers, Olive-sided Flycatchers, Solitary Vireos, Nashville and Blackburnian Warblers, and Hermit Thrushes also breed here.

In earlier days, before the forest was invaded by the white man and before the swamps were drained, the sun was unable to warm and dry much of the land which is now open to its rays. The coolness and dampness of the forest floor was favorable to the growth of Canadian plants, and these, instead of being few in numbers and limited in kind as today are the vestiges of a larger Canadian flora and are doomed to disappear if the land is all given over to pasture and to cultivated land and to the habitations of man.”

Charles J. Maynard, (1926), “Ornithological Reminiscences of Ipswich Beach: Another bird then common in the hills of Ipswich was the ‘Esquimaux’ Curlew, once exceedingly abundant in the autumn, but even then in the days of which I am writing (cir. 1870), not very common, and now gone forever.” (Maybe, maybe not.)

“This brings to mind another extinct bird. About 1874 I was rowing across Plum Island sound one day to reach the mouth of the Ipswich River. The tide was running out with great force and had to make considerable effort to hold my course in the whirling, rushing water. Suddenly a duck appeared very near the mouth of the Ipswich which I was confident was a Labrador. Although I had my gun with me, I knew if I attempted to take in my oars and pick it up, my boat would be whirled about so quickly that I could not shoot. The bird remained but a brief moment in sight then dived and I saw no more of it. … If this was a Labrador Duck it was one of the last of the species and very probably the last to ever come to Ipswich.”

Ralph Lawson (1926) “Herring Gulls Nesting in Salem Bay: The following letter received from Mr. Bernard B. Bancroft of Salem is most interesting: ‘One Sunday sometime around the first of July, a party of five, myself included, landed on North Gooseberry Island to eat lunch and found quite a lot of young Herring Gulls that were unable to fly. I could hardly credit it until I caught and examined a few of them and found that they were about four or five weeks old, so I made up my mind that they must have hatched there. I went looking about for nests and found at least twenty nests,…’ Frank Benson Esq., of Salem, tells me that when he was a boy fifty years ago there were no gulls nesting in the bay, and he believed that at that time that these birds had not nested there for many years before owing to constant shooting and the collection of eggs. This may, therefore, be the first nesting there for nearly a century.”

Horace Green (1929) “Note on the Yellow Rail: The Yellow Rail usually seems to be overlooked by the Club Members and is not included in the ‘Annotated Lists.’ I think this species is to be found regularly in the meadow near Lynnfield Centre. On September 28, 1929, I shot an adult in good plumage and on October 5th, I shot a male which I judge to be a young bird in his first plumage. I also shot an adult in the same meadow on October 3,1924, and I have found it there on several other occasions and regard it as a regular visitor.

My usual experience with this bird has convinced me that their usual habitat is in the drier parts of the meadow where wild meadow grass grows thickly, and not often in the wet ground or among cattails, where snipe, Virginia Rails and Soras may be found. One must almost step on a Yellow Rail to make it fly, and then it will rise barely high enough to clear the vegetation, and after fluttering along a short distance, it will drop into the grass again.”

Ralph Lawson (1930), “The Stoop of a Hawk: I have been told recently of a most interesting observation made by a man well fitted and well placed to judge the speed of the stoop of a hawk, probably a Duck Hawk, the story coming from the observer himself. I know this man well and although his conclusion may seem very impossible, I am confident that it is very close to the actual truth.

My friend was in Texas for some months completing his training as a pilot before he went overseas. He was flying a small pursuit plane, which had a normal speed of about 125 miles per hour and, while cruising about at a considerable altitude, he saw a bunch of ducks flying far below and ahead of him. Thinking to gain some experience in diving at a moving object, he turned the nose of his plane down and opened the throttle of his engine, thereby gaining speed rapidly. While he was still some distance from the ducks he glanced at a wing tip of his plane to see how much vibration his swoop was causing and as he did so, a hawk shot by him ‘as though the plane was standing still,’ and struck one of the ducks which fell towards the ground apparently lifeless. At the time the hawk passed the plane the latter was traveling at a speed of nearly 175 miles per hour and my friend thinks that the hawk was stooping two feet to his one but of course that is only an estimate as under the conditions no accurate computation was possible. We do know however that this particular hawk was moving at a rate of speed much greater than 175 miles per hour and perhaps not far from double that rate, as the observation was made by a man whose business it was to make fairly accurate observations while traveling through the air at high speed and who came through much active service in France and England without any serious mishaps.”

Charles W. Townsend (1931) “The Desertion of the Heronries in the Ipswich Dunes. In May and June, 1931, I found that the populous heronries in the two large pitch pine groves of the Ipswich Dunes were devoid of breeding Black-crowned Night Herons. No cloud or herons arose over the trees at my approach. No deafening cries of young and old were to be heard. The ground, bushes and trees, which in former years had been white with droppings, and where the odor had been overpowering, were now clean, and fragrant only of the pines. The unusual silence there, except for the cheerful songs of Maryland Yellow-throats, Redstarts and other birds, was most surprising. The sand and the mud flats of the neighboring creeks and estuaries, formerly abounding in Night Herons even in the daytime, all intent on procuring fish for their young, were noticeably deserted of these birds. Comparatively few were to be seen.

The southerly pine grove where the original heronry was established had diminished in popularity for the herons since 1926 when raccoons first appeared there, or rather their tracks, for the animal itself, largely nocturnal in habits, has almost never been seen in the dunes…

This spring and summer of 1931 I have often seen Night Herons flying north towards Plum Island and I believe our birds have taken up residence there, for the heronry on this island has more than doubled in size. The distance from the Ipswich heronries is about four miles.

Although Night Herons had previously roosted in the southerly grove of the pines in the Ipswich dunes, it was not until 1916 that I found their nests there, some 25 in all. These increased in numbers yearly, and, in 1918, a census taken in December of the nests showed the numbers to be at least 761. The heronry in the northerly grove a few hundred yards from the southerly grove was begun in 1923.”

Townsend continues dialogue as to the reason for the herons to move. Great horned owls had moved into the grove three years prior to the herons desertion. He continues to note that the pellets of the owls did not contain heron remains but instead “Brown rats’ bones and fur abounded in the pellets.” And despite this evidence he, after dismissing human persecution and failure of the integrity of the grove, concludes “the breeding Great Horned Owls and the tree-climbing raccoons were the causes of the desertion of the Ipswich heronries.” I have absolutely no knowledge of heronry dynamics, but on the information given here and if blame needs to be assigned, I’d cast it upon raccoons and rats.

In the same issue of 1931 is an early history of the acquisitions on Plum Island by the Federation of New England Bird Clubs to establish a Wildlife Reservation. This is one of several reports from the secretary of the Club, Laurence B. Fletcher.

“The late Edward Howe Forbush, first President of the Federation, said to the sanctuary committee, ‘Secure Plum Island and make it a bird sanctuary, for in my opinion it is the most important region on our coast.’ The committee was also urged by Dr. John C. Phillips to make every effort to secure this island.

In 1929, Miss Annie H. Brown, of Stoneham, a lover of birds, died leaving $15,000 for the purchase of a wildlife sanctuary to bear her name, also $10,000 for its maintenance. The sanctuary committee of the Federation was successful in persuading the Executors to purchase a tract of land of some 300 acres on Plum Island for a sanctuary.

Since the acquisition of the Annie H. Brown sanctuary two other tracts have been added to this reservation by the Federation amounting to some 600 acres which now gives a beach-front of about two miles.

During 1931 the Massachusetts Audubon Society purchased a tract of some 75 acres, which adjoins the Annie H. Brown Reservation , which will also become a wildlife sanctuary. The southern end of the island , of some 400 acres, is yet to be purchased . Owing to the fact that it is owned by a Realty Company, complications necessitate the postponement of its purchase.”

Along with each of these accounts within the ECOC Bulletin are lists from each of the annual Ipswich River canoe trips. The trip was run on the weekend closest to the 15th of May. It was a two day trip with an overnight at the Club’s Camp (behind Masconomet High School, Boxford) or at the Pines, now Perkins Island within the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary. These lists have been carried forward to the present largely by Donald Alexander of Rowley. There is a hiatus in this record keeping from 1951 to 1962. Here are some obvious items of note for the trip’s 85 year history: Included here are species and the first year seen on the trip: Least tern 1965, Cattle Egret 1971, Snowy Egret 1968, Glossy Ibis 1971, Gadwall 1970, Canada Goose 1931, Mallard 1932, Red-tailed Hawk 1961, Turkey Vulture 1979, Willet 1983, Ring-billed Gull 1963, Rock Dove 1935, Pileated Woodpecker 1964, Great-crested Flycatcher 1918, Tufted Titmouse 1970, House Wren 1924, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1963, Starling 1919, Blue-winged Warbler 1963, House Sparrow 1919, Cardinal 1969, Mockingbird 1963

Last seen: American Bittern 1987, Bobwhite 1927, Coopers Hawk 1970, Common Snipe 1971, Whip-poor-will 1977, Short-billed Marsh Wren 1946, Eastern Bluebird 1975, Golden-winged Warbler 1981, Vesper Sparrow 1968, Eastern Meadowlark 1986.

This is but a brief review of the history of the record-keepers of birds of Essex County. Because of Townsend, Brewster, Higginson, and Alexander, we have history. This referencing of past birds is necessary to understand what birds we can have again or which birds may disappear in the not-to-distant future. There are many lessons within this history. Is it enough to simply notice? How can we offset future population declines? Do we wish to be like Townsend and passively watch as the last Passenger Pigeon is stuffed. Locally we are loosing marsh birds, the whip-poor-will, bluebirds, purple martins, bank and cliff swallows, Golden-winged warblers, Red-shouldered Hawks, and the over-all populations of waterfowl, shorebirds and wood warblers are on the wane. We must accurately determine by how much and attribute it to the causes. Do we want history to repeat itself? Do we want to be the record-keepers of the last Golden-winged warbler? The last Eskimo Curlew?

This article appeared in a 1993 issue of Bird Observer

Section 2

The Essex County Ornithological Club: 1916-2016 by John Nelson

            It started on the water—the Ipswich River in Essex County, Massachusetts. A group of men, perched on the cane seats of canoes owned by Ralph Lawson and Gil Emilio, set out one May morning in 1907 to find birds, by sight or sound, on or along the river and to record the birds they found. The group paddled out again the next year, and the next, and the Ipswich River Trip became an annual tradition, a two-day excursion held on the weekend closest to May 15. Birders commuted by train, trolley, and liveries to Howe’s Station in Middleton and then to the put-in spot at the water hole below Spofford’s Boathouse. Nights they spent in tents, with hay bales for bedding, at a riverside camp in Boxford or at the Pines, now Perkins Island in the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary (IRWS). Before settling in, the more resolute ventured out for night birds.  

            The camaraderie of these trips was celebrated in impromptu entertainments and songs belted out with toasts around a campfire. The river could be tricky after spring rains, and the group’s comedian, aptly named Albert Fowler, composed mock-heroic ballads about canoeists overturned. “Cum Laude Platypus,” credited to John R. Ornithorynchus, tells the tale of sunken birders metamorphosed into duck-billed platypuses. They meet their curious fate in the final stanza:

                        From the Drink, from the Drink,  

                        We emerged through the eel-grass and slime.

                        We were changed by the Stink

                        Into Or-ni-tho-ryn-chus Divine.

Henceforth, any capsized canoeist would automatically join the Royal Order of Ornithornynchus.

            In 1916 the now expanded band of birders formed the Essex County Ornithological Club (ECOC) to study the county’s birds systematically in a co-operative spirit. They compiled a list of 40 charter members (mostly from Salem, Lynn, and Danvers) and elected the first officers: Frank Benson, President; Albert Morse, Vice-President; Arthur Osborne, Secretary; and Albert Fowler, Treasurer. The club sponsored field trips and met monthly, to compare field notes and hear ornithological papers, in the Peabody Museum of Salem (now Peabody Essex Museum), long a center for study of the county’s natural history. The ECOC, wrote charter member Edward Morse, carried out nature study in the tradition of Thoreau and John Burroughs. “The meetings are very informal, specimens of birds are exhibited, excursions are made and altogether perfect accord has prevailed.” Morse rhapsodized about the fascination of birds and the “agreeable features” of bird study, “wandering as one must over field and forest.” He claimed that because of birds’ economic importance, “we are of some use in the world in studying and recording observations of intrinsic value.”

The ECOC by-laws, modeled on those of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, required that new members be nominated by existing members, and that all members agree in writing to conform to the by-laws. Any member could be expelled by a three-quarters majority vote. The club also established an Honorary Membership for “ornithologists of eminence.” Annual dues were set at $2, with a life membership available for $25.

            Among the many prominent founders, one man stands out: Dr. Charles Townsend, an all-around naturalist and reigning authority on the county’s avian life. In 1905 Townsend published The Birds of Essex County, Massachusetts, among the first comprehensive studies of birds within a single county anywhere, to provide an annotated list of all species known from the county. Townsend traced the county’s ornithological history from the early 17th century while drawing on reports from sources ranging from farmers to seabird-watching lighthouse keepers. His book, wrote Jim MacDougall in a 1993 ECOC history, gives us “a body of knowledge that exclaims we take notice of the trends of the past and demands the necessity of keeping records today.” Townsend was described by one local historian as “a lover of the Ipswich salt marshes, beaches, dunes, and drumlins.” Jim Berry, Townsend’s heir in his exhaustive study of the county’s birds, especially admires Townsend’s descriptions of bird behavior, observed with scrupulous attention to detail. Townsend, notes Berry, was an intrepid field naturalist who “disdained physical hardship by canoeing around the marshes, hiking and camping in the [Ipswich] dunes, cooking out at all seasons, and taking a dip in freezing water in winter.”

            Townsend’s book offers a wealth of knowledge about the county’s birds but also tells a disturbing story of lost abundance and diversity. Birds that were once common in Essex County, like the Passenger Pigeon, are now extinct, and a litany of species, including Tundra Swan and Long-billed Curlew, have been extirpated as breeding birds and migrants in the county and often in the whole state. Townsend’s 1920 Supplement to the Birds of Essex County strikes a more hopeful chord, as he cites recent laws that had shortened the gunning seasons for shorebirds and waterfowl, and notes the crusade to stop the killing of egrets and terns for the millinery trade. We will never know the abundance of birds that astonished the first European settlers in New England, but through dedicated efforts to preserve species and their habitats, we might keep the birds we have.   

            ECOC meetings featured a regular speakers’ program, often covered by the Salem Evening News, beginning in 1916 with Winthrop Packard’s report on Mass Audubon’s lobbying for legislation to protect birds. State ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush lectured on “How Birds Helped Win the War” in 1918 and “The So-called Suicide of Wounded Water Birds” in 1922. Frank Benson, a renowned artist and club president for 18 years, demonstrated his etching techniques for illustrating birds. Charles Moulton entertained his audience with imitations of bird calls. Many members were knowledgeable naturalists, with interests ranging from botany to entomology to collecting and handling venomous snakes—the subject of Charles Clark’s 1927 presentation. Other well-travelled members shared birding adventures around the country and abroad in French Guiana, the Nile Valley, and Japan. Townsend, a delegate to the 1930 International Ornithological Congress in Amsterdam, reported on his around-the-globe birding tours. To add a visual component to lectures, the club purchased a Spencer Delineascope (a reflecting stereopticon or “magic lantern”) in 1917 and built a lantern-slide collection of local birds. In 1927 members enjoyed a motion picture starring locally nesting hummingbirds. In 1930 Gil Emilio brought in a freshly collected Say’s Phoebe for group inspection.

From 1919 through 1938 the club published annual bulletins that combined detailed field notes with thought-provoking articles on bird behavior, distribution, and conservation. Benson, who later created the second Federal Duck Stamp (a Canvasback), designed the terns-in-flight logo for the cover and illustrated each issue with woodcuts. The quality of the bulletins can be measured by the widespread interest they generated. ECOC archives in the Peabody Essex Museum contain requests for copies—and offers to exchange ornithological reports—not only from around New England but from individuals and academies nationwide, the Library of Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and scientists at the British Museum, the University of Bologna, McGill University, and zoological societies in Brussels and Paris. Ornithology was becoming international.  

One regular feature was Ralph Lawson’s annual report on the Ipswich River canoe trip. Lawson rejoiced over the “rich harvest of species” at such riverside spots as the Proctor estate in Topsfield, a “great wonderland to the lover of trees, shrubs, and rock gardens.” Truly, he exclaimed, Essex County in May was a bird lover’s paradise. Rodman Nichols explained the diversity of species found on trips as a reflection of the varied habitats along the river: woodlands, uplands, bogs, farmland, salt marshes and sloughs, and the dunes and beaches of Ipswich. The Salem Evening News regularly covered trips, with headlines announcing “warblers galore” in 1919 (23 species, including a rare spring Connecticut) and a Wood Duck nest with 17 eggs. In the final bulletin Ernest Dodge summarized the first 32 trips, with a table of all species seen or heard and the years when they were found. To the modern Massachusetts birder, the table is striking for both the absent species—Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Wren—and species once routine but now rare anywhere in the county. Golden-winged Warblers and nesting Vesper Sparrows were seen every year, Sedge Wrens in most years.  

Field notes were gathered in “Told Around the Big Table,” a reference to the club’s meeting place at the museum. Here readers could find reports of rare or interesting species seen by birders from bicycles, cars, trains, rowboats (Little Blue Heron in 1923), and steamers (Harlequin Ducks in 1922), while trapping mink or searching for flowers, or on ECOC field trips. The 1921 issue featured a photo of a preserved Common Shelduck (now in the museum collection) shot by Captain Howard Tobey at the mouth of the Essex River–the first specimen collected in North America, though not accepted as a record because of its questionable provenance. In 1925 George Felt described a county-record American Three-toed Woodpecker he found while hunting in Middleton and persuasively explained why it was not a slightly less rare Black-backed. In 1929 Gil Emilio wrote about the drama of trying to collect a specimen to document the first Black-headed Gull recorded in North America. On January 26 Emilio spotted the gull offshore in Newburyport and shot at it from 40 yards but missed. The next day, with a boat and a bigger gun, Emilio, Ludlow Griscom, and members re-found their bird, but by the time Emilio shot it, they’d lost their boat and captain, and the dead gull remained stubbornly at sea. Griscom frantically tried to organize a swimming party to brave the frigid waters. Emilio prudently declined and waited until his specimen had drifted within wading range.

Griscom, legendary for his birding prowess and described by Roger Tory Peterson as “a court of last resort in matters of field identification,” joined the club in 1928 after he moved from New York to become a curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. He quickly became a regular “Table” contributor, reporting on his bird censuses each spring and pelagic trips out of Gloucester and Chatham. The young Peterson sometimes tagged along in the field with Griscom and Ralph Lawson. In other “Table” notes Arthur Morley wondered how to deter predatory Northern Shrikes lurking around bird-banding stations, while A.W. Taylor offered techniques for a new mode of birding, capturing birds with a camera.

Each bulletin contained a list of species found that year, and starting in 1921, the club periodically published an updated county checklist, initially based on Townsend’s 1920 Supplement. Like other record-keeping societies, the ECOC struggled to set standards for accepting “unlikely observations.” Emilio and R.J. Eaton published long bulletin articles on the credibility of sight records. Griscom and Dorothy Snyder’s 1955 The Birds of Massachusetts–dedicated to Griscom’s wife Edith, a “patient and long-suffering ornithological widow”–would label as “unacceptable” any “sight record of a species difficult to identify, regardless of date, place, or previous records, by an observer or observers of unknown competence or known incompetence.” The unreliability or smugness of certain observers was a source of comedy as well as an issue of scientific ground rules. In “Drumming of the Snipe,” Albert Fowler reported that, despite gabby group members and a large dog’s “uproarious vocalizations,” birders managed fleeting glimpses of snipe drumming and fluttering at dusk. “One man,” Fowler noted, “went so far as to declare that he saw five Snipe, thereby drawing on himself sundry observations more pointed than scientific.” In “It Is Wise to Look Twice,” Arthur Stubbs satirized three “bird men”—the Medico, the Engineer, and the Pillman—each “wise in his own conceit” and “a little cocky over his knowledge of local bird-life,” who nearly overlooked a Bald Eagle while wrangling over shorebird identification.  

Field notes also told darker stories of birds and their habitats going or gone. On Martha’s Vineyard in late April 1921, ECOC “Heath-henners” thrilled to see 20 Heath Hen pairs engaged in mating dances, but three years later Alfred Gross spoke to the club about the species’ rapid decline. In 1921 Stubbs reminisced about Yellow-breasted Chats, regular breeding birds in the county between 1885 and 1895. C. J. Maynard, in 1926, recalled that Esquimaux Curlew once abounded in the Ipswich hills, where he saw some around 1870, but were now gone forever. Members were also dismayed that some of the county’s most productive birding grounds, like the Fay Estate—on the shores of Spring Pond, at the meeting point of Lynn, Salem, and Peabody—were now compromised or giving way to development.

More formal bulletin articles ranged from field ornithology to conservation. One recurrent theme was bird identification, from Townsend’s illustrated “Identification of Hawks in the Field” in 1919 to Griscom’s thorough gull study in 1929. An annual feature was a report on the year’s “shooting season”—for years provided by J. C. Phillips, an avid duck hunter and author of the four-volume Natural History of the Ducks, and then by game warden Edward Babson. Many members became active banders after the 1922 formation of the New England Bird Banding Association, and Laurence Fletcher presented annual banding results. A 1927 editorial denounced the “Wanton Destruction of Hawks and Owls.” In 1929 state ornithologist John May gathered evidence to show that most birds of prey are economically beneficial.

Beyond its attacks on the slaughter of hawks and heedless shorebird harvesting, the ECOC was dedicated to land acquisition to preserve bird habitat. As a member of the Federation of New England Bird Clubs, established in 1924 with Forbush as president, the ECOC joined the effort to procure land on Plum Island for a state-owned wildlife sanctuary. After Annie Brown of Stoneham bequeathed $25,000 to acquire and maintain 300 acres, the Federation and Mass Audubon purchased another 675 acres, and the state hired a warden to patrol the refuge and prevent illegal shooting. The Federation also purchased Egg Rock off Nahant and Milk Island off Rockport. J. C. Phillips, a Federation director, privately donated 2000 acres to establish a reservation in Boxford—the genesis of the current Bald Hill Reservation.

            At the close of 1934, with a peak membership of 72, the ECOC seemed to be going strong, but there were signs of incipient decline. One factor was the stress of the Depression, when even a dime for carfare to a bird outing could seem a luxury, but the overriding problem was that the club’s leaders were dying. Starting in 1929, each bulletin contained an In Memoriam section, and within the next decade the club lost many of its founders: longtime recorder Arthur Stubbs in 1932, Charles Townsend in 1934, Arthur Osborne in 1935, Edward Babson and newly elected President Albert Morse in 1936, and J. C. Phillips in 1938. There’s a poignancy to the last few bulletins, as members memorialized leaders like Townsend—their “wiser and older brother” and exemplary field ornithologist—while Ernest Dodge bemoaned that local birders seemed “to have fallen into a sad lethargy.” In 1936, despite strong resistance, editors Dodge and Emilio recommended discontinuance of the bulletin. Tired of supplicating and cajoling members to provide a “small amount of very mediocre material,” they could no longer justify the effort spent on “something that amounts to so little.” The final bulletin, covering 1937 and 1938, did not announce its own termination, but it listed the 28 members who had died since the club’s formation 22 years earlier.  

            The last bulletin marked the end of an era for the club and the beginning of a long stagnation. Many leaders were gone, while others soon left to serve their country in World War II. Birders at home were limited by wartime security and rationing regulations that restricted driving and bird-seeking along coastlines. Given the absence of archives from 1940 to 1975, one can only speculate about this period, though the ECOC was hardly unique in struggling to remain a vital, cohesive bird club. Despite its setbacks the club carried on, maintaining the canoe trip, sharing notes on birds near and far, and remaining committed to conservation. In 1939 members joined a national robin census sponsored by National Audubon, while the Council sent a letter alerting the U.S. Biological Survey to enormous amounts of oil harming birds on Nahant and Swampscott beaches.   

A pivotal point in the club’s eventual revitalization was the decision, despite some rigid opposition, to accept women as members in the 1970s. “Before the women,” one longtime (male) member told me, “the club was dying. It was a bunch of guys mostly sitting around smoking cigars and talking about baseball.” Attendance at meetings had dropped to the single digits, recalls past president Randy Johnson, and as a gentlemen’s club the ECOC was facing likely extinction. The club’s original by-laws had said nothing about gender, but no women were accepted as members, and after the revised by-laws of 1936 replaced “persons” with “men” in reference to members, women were excluded for another 35 years. This exclusion reflected a longstanding bias against female ornithologists; the American Ornithological Society had kept women on the margins long after they’d made significant contributions to ornithology. And the males in the ECOC may have preferred to drink and sing around campfires in an all-boy band.

            The first woman to join the ECOC was Dorothy (Dee) Snyder, former Curator of Natural History at the Peabody Museum and, with Griscom, co-author of the comprehensive The Birds of Massachusetts in 1955. Another pioneer was Sarah (Sally) Ingalls, Snyder’s successor as curator, renowned for her skill in mounting specimens, including a Great Gray Owl found dead in Newbury and displayed at a 1979 meeting. In a recent interview Ingalls credited founder Ralph Lawson for the push to bring women into the ECOC. “We were curious about the club,” she said, “but we didn’t know what those boys were doing over there.” Ingalls edited the revised 1975 ECOC checklist and was elected the club’s first woman president in 1977. Other women soon took on significant roles, including program coordinator Juliet Kellogg and longtime secretary Pauline Metras. Sarah Robbins, first Director of Education at the Peabody Museum, instituted the delightful tradition of an annual May outing and potluck supper—with “bird cakes” shaped as eagles, penguins, or “mystery birds”—at her home at bird-rich Eastern Point in Gloucester.  

            Women also joined the old-boy band on canoes. Secretary Evelyn Clay described the pleasure of floating like Cleopatra on her barge while others took turns paddling, and the thrill of ducking branches as boats swirled in eddies. Some boaters ducked too late, inducting themselves into the Ornithornynchus Club. They may or may not have been the birders who, according to Johnson, joked about seeing “martini birds” like the Extramarital Lark. In 1993 Jim MacDougall reminisced about his first river trip in 1974, his “introduction to serious birding” by old-timers who knew more birds by sound than he knew by sight. Some charter members were so frail, he noted, that “they had to be transported from bridge to bridge in a big old Buick convertible,” yet, while waiting for the canoeists to arrive, they’d find “a roosting nighthawk straddling a branch or a Prothonotary Warbler perched by the river.” The traditional buffet dinners, he recalled, were marked by intellectual sparring, easy laughter, and eyebrows raised skeptically if single-observer rarities were announced. Over the weekend the 1974 group tallied 132 species, carefully recorded by Don Alexander, an ECOC member since 1936. The river trip reports still provide what Jim Berry calls “a useful data base of species found along one of the county’s major rivers,” illustrating the decline of wetlands and grasslands birds as well as new arrivals. Eastern Meadowlarks were last found in 1986, American Bitterns in 1987. Firsts for the trips included Snowy Egret in 1968, Northern Cardinal in 1969, and Turkey Vulture in 1979.   

            The club also sponsored regular field trips, including owl prowls and spring woodcock watches led for years by Alexander or MacDougall and recently by IRWS director Carol Decker. One year MacDougall boldly promised woodcock watchers some peenting or their membership dues back but later claimed that the fun was in the looking, not the finding. Members explored Misery Island with Joe Paluzzi and joined hawk watches, Essex River boat trips, and a 2001 outing with “bluebird lady” Lillian Files. When Sarah Robbins died in 2003, her good friend and longtime member Dotty Brown graciously took over the birds-and-supper tradition at Eastern Point. Always looking to ally with other groups, the ECOC has co-sponsored trips with the Friends of Salem Woods and the Brookline Bird Club, starting with club president John Nove’s Halibut Point trips in the 1970s and continuing with an annual Crane Beach walk. The ECOC also provided the majority of trip leaders for the annual Cape Ann Winter Birding Weekend, along with presentations on Cape Ann birds and history by Chris Leahy, John Nelson, Jim Berry, and Robert Buchsbaum.   

            At meetings, members have continued to share bird reports, whether it be rarities like a White-tailed Tropicbird found barely alive on a Byfield playing field after Hurricane Gloria in 1985, or an Ancient Murrelet at Halibut Point in 1992, or heartening signs like Bald Eagles on the Merrimac River in 1981 and, in 1995, the first Eastern Bluebirds nesting at the IRWS in 20 years. In 2002, in a thorough effort guided by Jim MacDougall, the ECOC published, via the club’s website, the 7th edition of the ECOC checklist, still the most reliable source for the abundance status and seasonal distribution of the county’s birds. Berry, Nelson, councilor Toddy Glaser, and Fay Vale have also served as contributors and editors for Bird Observer, an invaluable New England-wide journal of field reports and ornithological studies.

            From the club’s inception, ECOC members have spearheaded efforts to census the county’s birds. Don Alexander, organizer of the first Newburyport Christmas Bird Count in 1938, served as compiler for decades, a role later filled by Rick Heil, Jim Berry, and now Tom Young over the past forty years, while Nove and Berry have acted as Cape Ann CBC compilers. Berry, an inveterate seeker of nests, has dedicated himself to studying the county’s breeding birds for over four decades. As Essex County coordinator for the state’s second Breeding Bird Atlas in 2007-2011, he organized comprehensive county-wide coverage while taking on many disparate blocks himself. He has also compiled useful data on breeding populations through his longtime counts in Ipswich, surveys of salt marsh birds with MacDougall and Heil, and regular heron nest counts on Kettle and Eagle Islands with Simon Perkins of Mass Audubon.

            Beyond their extensive involvement in the two atlases and local CBCs, members also joined in an annual IRWS breeding bird census, shorebird monitoring at Joppa Flats, a discouraging statewide rail and marsh bird survey in 1992, and, guided by conservation biologist Robert Buchsbaum, a waterfowl study in Gloucester Harbor in the late 1990s. The club devoted some meetings to banding reports by Ozzie Norris and Bill Gette from Joppa Flats. Since 2008, through the initiative of Phil Brown, the ECOC has also sponsored an expanding nest box program for American Kestrels, a species dwindling in the Northeast.

            Still an advocate for bird conservation, the ECOC has worked in recent decades to protect habitat through its lobbying against proposed legislation in 1993 that would have allowed off-road vehicles on barrier beaches, letter-writing campaigns to preserve freshwater marshes at the Parker River NWR, and a lobbying effort in 2010 to protest the proposed siting of wind turbines on Nahant Causeway. The ECOC is now supporting the Essex County Greenbelt Association’s campaign to acquire and preserve Sagamore Hill in Hamilton. Despite limited financial resources, the club helped support the Tern Nesting Project at Crane Beach in the 1980s and, more recently, Kestrel Educational Adventures, which strives to educate children throughout the North Shore about nature and the need for conservation. The ECOC also donates annually to two organizations which have been special, generous partners throughout its history, the Peabody Essex Museum—its wonderful home for a century—and the Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, around which canoe trips have been organized since 1907.

            Conservation continues to be a major theme of the speakers’ program, with lectures on habitat loss, the effects of climate change on bird migrations, and Buchsbaum’s review of Mass Audubon’s 2011 “State of the Birds” report. Through presentations like Chris Leahy’s account of the first Mass Audubon trip to Mongolia in 1983 and Jan Smith’s 1997 demonstration of global diversity in bird families, members bird vicariously around the world. They’ve been taken back in time, as with Sheperd Krech’s lecture on birds and Native Americans in the South, and pointed to the future with talks on the expanding study of night migrations and the frontiers of pelagic birding. Some presentations have drawn crowds of 150 or more, such as Shawn Carey’s multi-media account of the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill and Tim Laman’s spectacular video/photo show on birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea. Thanks largely to the efforts of longtime vice-president Janey Winchell, the programs maintain variety, from local conservation to cutting-edge studies of bird vocalizations, while offering members a world-class line-up of speakers. Such renowned figures as Bernd Heinrich, Irene Pepperberg, David Sibley, and Donald Kroodsma have all made presentations within the past three years.

            Live birds have starred in some popular programs, from MacDougall’s 1977 talk on birds of prey, featuring an injured Northern Saw-whet Owl, to owl presentations by Norm Smith and by Mark and Marcia Wilson. Other speakers—Winchell in 1992 on bats, Brian Cassie in 1996 on the Mass Butterfly Atlas Project, Blair Nikula in 2002 on dragonflies—have gone beyond birds entirely. In the 1990s Jim Brown, Jim Berry, and Tom Young offered a series of identification workshops on seabirds, shorebirds, owls, warblers, nests and eggs that utilized the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection of bird skins and mounted specimens. In 2013 Winchell, curator of the museum’s natural history collections, guided members through the renovated, expanded Art & Nature Center. In 2014 the center was posthumously named in honor of Dotty Brown, a Life Fellow and Honorary Trustee at the museum, and headed up by Winchell, whose title, the Sarah Fraser Robbins Director, honors Dotty’s friend, the originator of the Eastern Point gatherings.

            In 2003 Jim Berry instituted a new club tradition, his book-of-the-month selections, starting with Griscom and Snyder’s The Birds of Massachusetts and introducing members to forgotten treasures of regional bird lore. An older tradition is the annual members’ night, when members display their diverse creative talents and share adventures through poetry, original ballads, comic narratives, slide shows ranging from dragonflies to Antarctic birds, and reports on international bird-banding. The minutes from one meeting include Jay Moore’s poem “Blown Away Nearshore,” in which a “street-smart coastal bully” Great Black-backed Gull turns its “switchblade bill” on an exhausted Dovekie blown inshore by a storm.

            Over the years, the club has reflected on its history through slide shows by Don Alexander, Stewart Duncan, and Jim MacDougall on the ECOC’s formative years and canoeing tradition. Members have also periodically re-examined the club’s mission and scope. In 1984 a group of members wanted the club to focus more on education and stewardship of all the county’s natural resources. Finding the term “ornithological” too restrictive and “club” too reminiscent of the ECOC’s original exclusivity, they proposed by-law changes to broaden the club’s scope and rename it the Essex County Natural History Society. Members overwhelmingly defeated the proposal, arguing that birding was still the club’s primary purpose, but they reached a consensus on the need to recruit new members and expand natural history programs.

            Issues of membership and purpose were revisited in 1994 and 2004 through proposed amendments to by-laws. Members agreed to eliminate nomination (and a review of credentials) as a pre-requisite for membership, but voted to keep honorary memberships—in part to honor Sally Ingalls, who’d moved to New York—and concluded that the club’s horizons now encompassed natural history and biodiversity. These deliberations led to the formation of an ECOC Youth Program, chaired by Sue McGrath, who’d been inspired by MacDougall’s 1993 history to join the club and “learn and serve with the finest.” McGrath organized popular Bald Eagle Family Adventures and family-oriented banding outings. She also became the “landlord” of Purple Martin houses at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and in 2002 established Newburyport Birders to teach aspiring birders how to observe and appreciate birds.

            Club membership, steadily rising, is now over 100, and the club is fiscally sound, though that wasn’t always the case. With $61 in the bank in 1979, the ECOC raised annual dues from $3 to $8, then lowered them to $6 in 1981, then raised them in 2001 to the current bargain of $12. McGrath credits webmaster Phil Brown for increasing membership by bringing modern technology to the club to improve communications. The ECOC now has members from all over the county and beyond.    

            Bird clubs, big or small, thrive only if members step forward to energize the group, and the ECOC has been fortunate in its leaders, from Lawson and Emilio in the early years to outgoing president Jim McCoy, who instituted “clubhouse gatherings” at the Ipswich River Watershed Association and Ravenswood Park in Gloucester. Rob Moir, former Curator of Natural History at the Peabody Essex Museum, served as president for nine dedicated years, while his predecessors—Randy Johnson, Stewart Duncan, Jay Moore—continued their service as officers or councilors long after their presidencies. Moir, in turn, was succeeded by a series of steady-handed leaders: Robert Buchsbaum, Tom Young, Jim Berry, and Sue McGrath. It’s hard to imagine the modern ECOC without the contributions of Berry—our own version of Charles Townsend—or Jim MacDougall, whom Buchsbaum calls the club’s “institutional memory” and “the soul of the organization,” or Janey Winchell, well-described by Young as “the glue that holds the club together.” And club leaders haven’t lost sight of our obligation to the future. As Griscom once guided a young Roger Tory Peterson, and as Duncan, Jim Brown and Berry were teachers of future presidents Johnson, Young, and McGrath, so Berry and McCoy mentor avid young birders like Jeremiah Sullivan, Miles Brengle, Nathan Dubrow, Ben Peters, and others yet to emerge–the next generation of Essex County birding.

            In May 2016 the club will sponsor the 110th consecutive Ipswich River canoe trip, among the longest running bird censuses in the country and invariably remembered by participants for the birds, the dawn chorus on the river, and its lively springtime spirit. Opportunity beckons to join the Ornithorynchus Club. On January 8, 2016, the club met at Salem’s Hawthorne Hotel to celebrate its first century and elected a new president, Constance Lapite. The ECOC has a proud history, but there are challenges to face. In 1993 MacDougall asked: “How can we offset further population declines? . . . Do we want to be the record-keepers of the last Golden-winged Warbler?” The warblers are now virtually gone from the county, but other local breeding birds are at risk, like Salt Marsh Sparrows, threatened by rising sea levels. The birds await us. They also need us.


Berry, Jim. An Updated Birds of Essex County. Unpublished manuscript. Microsoft Word file.

Dodge, Ernest and Gil Emilio. December 1936. Bulletin of the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts no. 18:3-4.

“Feathered Friends.” 1926. North Shore Breeze and Reminder March 1926: 11-13.

Fowler, Albert. 1922. Drumming of the Snipe. Bulletin of the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts 4 (1): 55-56.  

MacDougall, Jim. 1993. Historians of Essex County and the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts. Bird Observer 21 (1):27-35.   

Moore, Jay. 1996. Blown Away Nearshore. Minutes of the February 1, 1996 meeting of the Essex County Ornithological Club.

Morse, Edward F. 1919. Introductory Note. Bulletin of the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts 1 (1): 3-5.

Stubbs, Ernest. 1928. It Is Wise to Look Twice. December 1928. Bulletin of the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts no. 10:57-58.

John Nelson, of Gloucester, serves on the Council of the ECOC. He gives special thanks to Jim MacDougall and Jim Berry for their help in providing sources and reviewing this history.