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