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My Nantucket Birding Bible

Book Cover
1939 Peterson Guide
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
A show-stopper bird
Edith's dedication in my book
Eskimo Curlew's tragic concern for a flock mate
A Pair of Passenger Pigeons
Edith Andrews, courtesy of the NHA Archives

    When I was 12 years old in 1953 I received a book for my birthday. It was pretty new at the time, and it was called The Birds of Nantucket, by people whose names I would learn to revere – Ludlow Griscom and Edith V. Folger.

    There was only one other bird book available at the time, Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. I had a copy of the 2nd edition, from 1939. That book showed how to identify all the birds in the eastern U.S., but didn’t answer the question, “what might one actually see on Nantucket Island.”

    Back then we lived at 3 Chestnut Street, and I walked up Quince Street to Academy Hill School twice a day. No school lunch program, you either carried your own or went home for lunch.

    My family owned and edited the Inquirer and Mirror newspaper. They were movers and shakers on this small island. The phone number at home was “2.” We had “1” and “3” at the ‘Mirror Office,’ then located near the corner of Orange and Main. 

    At some point that spring, everything stopped for a few moments at our house. My grandmother, Grace Turner, knew something about birds. She was born in Polpis 1896 and went to the Polpis School for the first four grades and then went to the ‘Sconset school. The big attention-getter was a male Rose-breasted Grosbeak. It appeared in our Japonica bush next to the ‘piazza’ in the back yard.

    Even today, one of these charming grosbeaks is a show-stopper. My friend, Wayne Vierra, posted a picture of one in the ‘Birding Nantucket’ Facebook group on May 1, stirring the interest of 14 other folks who let us know of several others that had appeared. 

    With the persistent Northeast winds, how would they have arrived here? That’s the kind of question, the late Edith Andrews, nee Edith Folger, wondered about in that book that arrived in my hands over 60 years ago.

    I read that book, cover to cover, again and again. I’m pleased to still have it. In 2003 when I was helping Edith organize 60 years of her journals, I commented how important that book had been to me and she in her charming way, signed it for me, commenting on how I had SHOWED her several places to find birds on our island.

    That was Edith’s style. She could have been a stand-offish teacher type, but instead, she would find a way to make a student feel important. As a teen, I felt she knew everything about birds – such cool animals. And yet, she made me feel I might have something to contribute myself.

    I remember her looking through MY copy of HER book at my penciled annotations from the 1950s, and remembering how she and I greatly expanded island bird knowledge back then.

    When The Birds of Nantucket was written, its main sources came from the extensive hunting journals written by George Henry Mackay - pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable, ‘Mack-ee.’ He wrote about what he was hunting in the late 1800s, so it was all about waterfowl and shorebirds. He hardly noticed a warbler or a sparrow. Edith also found the natural history records being maintained by the Maria Mitchell Association invaluable.

    So, although Edith’s book was wonderful, she only had a few years of experience on Nantucket when she wrote it. Back then, ornithologists would shoot a bird in order to identify it. Binoculars were expensive and heavy. One of Edith’s prize possessions was a Bausch & Lomb telescope on a tripod. You could see the leg color of sandpipers, which it turns out – is important!

    Her book also points out important island facts we might never assume. In the mid-1940s, Great Point and Coatue had recently been an island and only had just been reconnected. She commented about Tuckernuck being part of Nantucket in 1774. I see that until 1869, you could still drive a wagon across at low tide.  Then an October storm cut it off for good.

    Getting back to our Grosbeak, we now know that sometimes the Northeasterly winds are birders’ friends. Migrating songbirds that find themselves out over the stormy Atlantic as dawn breaks, may be driven back to the haven of land and arrive, exhausted, on our eastern beaches. Perhaps that’s how some of our recent colorful songbirds found Nantucket.

    Alas, The Birds of Nantucket is long out of print and quite rare to find. The Nantucket Atheneum has several copies available so you can hold one in your hand and enjoy it. But you can’t annotate your own bird notes in it as I did, a long time ago.

    Perhaps the audience for that sort of thing is pretty small these days. Now you can go onto on the Internet and find out everything that’s being seen. If you are going to the Lily Pond, or the Creeks, or Jackson Point for the first time ever, you can look on the web and quickly know what others have found there.

    The Birds of Nantucket is a journey back through time, to when species that are now long gone were found here. Alas, they were shot. I’m talking about the Eskimo Curlew, a small version of the Whimbrel we see now. They called them ‘dough birds,’ because they would gorge themselves so fat before their long migrations. The book tells us, “1869, August 19, the last great flight in history anywhere on the Atlantic seaboard.” Distressingly, if one was shot, the rest of the flock would return again and again, until they were all gone.

    The same story plays out for the extinct Passenger Pigeon – we see three records in the 1870s, all birds that were shot. That’s what life was like on an island isolated 30 miles at sea, often storm-tossed and cut off from the rest of the world.

    A modern field guide, or a web page lacks that perspective. If you are a student of bird life, The Birds of Nantucket provides the viewpoint of a natural scientist 70 years ago, and you can reflect on how it relates to the birds we see around us today.

        Ken Blackshaw’s ornithological career began in the early 1950s under the tutelage of Nantucket’s birding doyenne, the late, Edith Folger Andrews. Since then he has traveled the world over, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, IBM, and now retired, seeing birds, studying their behavior and authoring and editing many books about birds. He is nationally recognized for his birding skills. Catch Ken with Birding Nantucket on WNCK, Nantucket's NPR Station at 89.5 FM, weekdays at 8:04 am. Ask Ken a question at: [email protected]