Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Griscom Day, AM - Birding Halibut Point, 1941

A one-per-decade series of glimpses, 1860-1960

When I heard from centenarian Roland Clement, by email, that he had been birding on Halibut Point with Ludlow Griscom on December 7, 1941, my antennae stretched in several directions at once. I went down to the Massachusetts Audubon Society headquarters in Lincoln to find out more about the master.
Edwin Way Teale photo and article1
Everyone at  Mass Audubon reacted alertly to my interest. The aura around "The Lud" is still palpable, though he winged from this life fifty-five years ago. Many testimonies and anecdotes from his fellow naturalists perched on the library shelves.

Roger Tory Peterson, a Griscom protégé and originator of the Field Guides that revolutionized outdoor learning, wrote that his mentor "bridged the gap between collector of the old school and the modern field of ornithologist with the binocular. He was the high priest of this new cult of split-second field identification. My own field guides, though a visual invention, were profoundly influenced by his teaching."2

Peterson  recalled that Griscom, born in 1890, recalled coming of age when a man was "perfectly free to shoot as many warblers in the morning as he could skin in the afternoon, by first ringing a doorbell, hat in hand, and courteously requesting  permission, it was entirely possible to blaze away and shoot the warbling vireo out of the treetop onto the lawn."2 But Griscom advanced the sport of virtual hunting where birds could keep their fascinating feathers unharmed.
"Four-thirty A.M. The start of a field trip, Griscom style sneakers and an old suit."
Edwin Way Teale1
Here are recollections of a couple of other ardent companions:

One day of bird-watching a là Griscom and they [skeptics] would be ready to elevate this robust, he-man activity to a place beside mountain-climbing and the cross-country marathon....From the time the car rolled out of his Cambridge driveway a little after 4:30 until it rolled back again after 10 pm, the trip ran like a subway schedule. - Edwin Way Teale1  

"Are you sorry now you came?" he asked, as if anyone were ever sorry they had gone on a trip with him, even those times when his car got stuck in a soggy field in early spring or in snow on an unused road in winter. - Cora Wellman3

*  *  *
I take you now to his favorite chowder house in Newburyport with Ludlow Griscom (LG) and two acolytes, Roland Clement (RC) and Bill Drury (BD).

LG  If you boys are finished lunch we'll move right along to Halibut Point. Allow me to pick up the check. Roland, you've recorded everything from Plum Island and the Merrimack? We didn't do so badly. 
RC  I believe we have it all. 

LG  Remember: ornithologists want complete records of every species seen, all the numbers, weather, barometer, wind, tide, trends, everything. Listers are content to just check off the sighting of a species on their scorecards. Our data, besides its value to science, enables us to out-list the Listers on any competition. I'll see you at the car. We'll get to a few more spots with some zip to them.

BD  I think he was pretty disappointed about getting skunked on the ivory gull and gyrfalcon after those trophies he had last year. But we saw every other kind of raptor imaginable. That was a great look at the snowy owl.

Snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus
RC  I can't believe he spotted it behind the dunes, like he knew it was there. It's the first one reported this far south this year. You know I've been collating the New England lists for the Bulletin. This will be the earliest snowy owl of the year.
BD  How about the golden eagle he nailed on that old stump by the Merrimack River when everybody was fixated on bald eagles by the Chain Bridge. And then, while we're ooh-ing and ah-ing about that, he picks up a Barrow's goldeneye in flight over the river. Unbelievable.
RC  He's heading out, we'd better get going. I hope my sneakers dry before we get to Halibut Point.
* * *
"A Griscom Day, PM" will continue this field trip into the afternoon, in next week's essay.

1     Edwin Way Teale, "Ludlow Griscom, Virtuoso of Field Identification,” Audubon Magazine #62, 1960.
2     Roger Tory Peterson, "In Memoriam: Ludlow Griscom," Auk #82, Oct 1965.
3     Cora Wellman, "Birding with Ludlow Griscom," Bulletin of the Massachusetts Audubon Society (BMAS), Winter 1965.

        Ludlow Griscom, "Eastern Massachusetts Birds in 1940," BMAS #25, 1941.
        Ludlow Griscom, "A Year's Birding by Automobile," BMAS #26, 1942.
        Roland Clement, letter to Martin Ray November 17, 2013.
        Chris Leahy, guide to all things avian and Audubon

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