April 2016

Vol. 44, No. 2

The Essex County Ornithological Club: 1916-2016

John Nelson

Essex County Ornithological Club Canoe trip 2015. Photograph by Dave Brewster.

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 Mass Audubon’s 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.

The moral? Birders on boats should learn to swim. Henceforth, any capsized canoeist would automatically join the Royal Order of Ornithorynchus.

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” (Morse 1919).

The ECOC bylaws, modeled on those of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, required that existing members nominate new members and that all members agree in writing to conform to the bylaws. 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 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 drawing on reports from diverse sources such as 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” (MacDougall 1993). 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” (Berry).

Bulletin of the Essex County Ornithological Club 1937-38. Cover with logo by Frank Benson.

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.

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” (Feathered 1926). 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 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), or 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 less rare Black-backed. In 1929, Gil Emilio captured the drama of chasing and trying to document a rare bird, 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 other club 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, a legendary field birder who joined the club in 1928, quickly became a regular “Table” contributor, reporting on his bird censuses each May. In several reports we find a young Roger Tory Peterson tagging along in the field with Griscom and Lawson. Other field notes illustrated the range encompassed by the term “birding.” Arthur Morley considered the problem of Northern Shrikes hanging out around bird- banding stations. A.W. Taylor in 1936 suggested techniques for 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,” and Emilio and R.J. Eaton published long bulletin articles on the credibility of sight records. 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” (Fowler 1922). 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” (Stubbs 1928). Stubbs 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,” and 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.

Jim McCoy with Ben Peters and Shawn Carey. Photograph courtesy of the author.

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—and Ernest Dodge bemoaned the fact 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” (Dodge and Emilio 1936). 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, and 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, and the Council sent a letter alerting the U.S. Biological Survey to enormous amounts of oil harming birds on Nahant and Swampscott beaches.

Dotty Brown cutting cake 2008. Photograph by George Loring.

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 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 the revised by-laws of 1936 replaced “persons” with “men” in reference to members, and women were excluded for another 35 years. Whatever the reasons, this exclusion certainly didn’t reflect women’s lack of interest in birding, for the Brookline Bird Club, founded three years before the ECOC, featured women as leaders from the start, including eight of its first eleven directors.

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” (Sarah Ingalls, personal communication 2015). 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, the 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.

Meanwhile, members kept up the annual canoe trips. 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 Ornithorynchus 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” (MacDougall 1993). 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” (Berry), 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 for shorebirds, 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 BBC 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 culture by John Nelson, Jim Berry, and conservation scientist 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 or, in 1995, the first Eastern Bluebirds nesting at the IRWS in twenty 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.

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 filled by Rick Heil, Jim Berry, and now Tom Young for 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 countywide 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 Buchsbaum, a waterfowl study in Gloucester Harbor in the late 1990s. The club devoted some meetings to banding reports by Ozzie Norris, Bill Gette from Joppa Flats, and owl expert Norm Smith. 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.

Steve Grinley with kestrel box. Photograph 
by Phil Brown.

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. It also participated in 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 that 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 Massachusetts 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 Shepard 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. Renowned figures such as Bernd Heinrich, Irene Pepperberg, David Sibley, and Donald Kroodsma have all made presentations within the past three years.

Jim Berry taking field notes. Photograph by John Lejeune.

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—Janey Winchell in 1992 on bats, Brian Cassie on the 1996 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 fine 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 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 often introducing members to forgotten treasures of regional bird lore. A much older tradition is the annual members’ night, when members display their diverse creative talents and share stories of birding adventures. In recent years audiences have been treated to the poems of accomplished poet and novelist (and club secretary) Dawn Paul, bird ballads composed and sung by Caroline Haines, Tom Young’s dragonfly photos, John Nelson’s comic essay “Geezer Birding,” Paul Ippolito’s stunning Antarctica photos, Peter Vale’s report on bird-banding in El Salvador, a Jim Wallius DVD of birds and mammals in Australasia, and Jay Moore’s poem “Blown Away Near Shore,” in which a “street- smart coastal bully”—a Great Black-backed Gull—turns its “switchblade bill” on an exhausted Dovekie blown inshore by a storm (Moore 1996).

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 prerequisite 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” (Susan McGrath, personal communication 2015). 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. McGrath credits webmaster Phil Brown for increasing membership by bringing modern technology to the club to improve communications (Susan McGrath, personal communication 2015). 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. The ECOC has been fortunate in its leaders, from Lawson and Emilio in the early years to outgoing president Jim McCoy, who, determined to increase involvement in club activities, 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, and 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” (Robert Buchsbaum, personal communication 2015), or Janey Winchell, well-described by Young as “the glue that holds the club together” (Thomas Young, personal communication 2015). 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 new 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”? (MacDougall 1993) The warblers are now virtually gone from the county, but other local breeding birds are at risk, like Saltmarsh Sparrows, threatened by rising sea levels.

The birds await us. They also need us.


  • Berry, Jim. An Updated Birds of Essex County. Unpublished manuscript, last edited January 8, 2016. Microsoft Word file.
  • Dodge, Ernest and Gil Emilio. 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, Bulletin of the Essex County Ornithological Club of Massachusetts no. 10: 57–58.

John Nelson, of Gloucester, contributes regularly to Bird Observer. His recent publications include the essays “I Saw What I Said I Saw: Witnesses to Crimes and Birds” in the Winter 2015 issue of The Missouri Review and “Funny Bird Sex” in the Winter 2016 issue of The Antioch Review. He serves on the Council of the ECOC and chairs the Conservation and Education Committee for the Brookline Bird Club. He would like to give special thanks to Jim MacDougall and Jim Berry for their help in providing sources and reviewing this history.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Bird Observer logo
celebrating our
50th year

Our mission: to support and promote the observation, understanding, and conservation of the wild birds of New England.

Bird Observer supports the right of all people to enjoy birding and nature in a safe and welcoming environment free from discrimination and harrassment, be it sexual, racial, or barriers for people with disabilities.
© Copyright 2022 by Bird Observer, Inc.