PLYMOUTH MEMORIES: ‘Betty’ Anderson and the Manomet Bird Observatory

This article was written by Frank Mand and originally published by the Old Colony Memorial on August 8, 2017.  See the original article here.

 

This story is part of a summer series looking back at Plymouth memories with some of the town’s ladies and gentlemen.

 

She is in part responsible for the creation - from its beginnings in a summer home on the cliffs of Manomet Point - of what is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, now named for the community where it began. But what is perhaps more remarkable about 94-year old Kathleen “Betty” Anderson is her enduring connection to the earth and all of its creatures.

 

If you were familiar with Manomet ’s Stage Point Road in the 1950s and traveled down it today you’d see that not much has changed.

 

A few new homes nestle in there, but the dirt road still winds through trees so thick you might not realize how close you are to the steep cliffs that descend to the rocks and sand and seaweed below.

 

This small elevated peninsula is what drew Betty to Plymouth 60 years ago. Its topography and position, jutting out into Cape Cod Bay, made it a popular spot for birders and those hunting water fowl for many decades before the Ernst family agreed to donate their summer home for use as the headquarters for the fledgling Manomet Bird Observatory.

 

Betty - who a dozen years later would become MBO’s first executive director - first visited the area for another reason in 1956. She was employed by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, netting birds for research into the causes and factors affecting the spread of avian-born encephalitis.

 

In 1955 there was a major outbreak of human cases of encephalitis in this area, and Betty’s husband, who was then the regional environmental engineer for the commonwealth, was trapping mosquitoes around the southeastern end of the state, looking for those infected with the virus when he found a very “hot” sample in their own barn.

 

That brought Dr. Richard Hayes of the U.S. Public Health Service to Middleborough and led to a job offer for Betty.

 

“We walked out onto our property, which was connected to the Great Cedar Swamp, and as we wandered about the air was full of birdsong,” Betty said. “Dr. Hayes kept asking about the birds, all of which I could recognize by their song, and it just so happened they were looking for an ornithologist to hire as part of their research into bird-borne diseases.”

 

Hayes taught her how to set nets and capture birds, and she began to work for the commonwealth’s Department of Public Healthy under direction of the Public Health Service.

 

That’s how Betty first came to the Manomet Point area, but note again Betty’s almost childlike appreciation for nature.

 

“My family was very connected to the earth, the seasons, the natural world,” Betty said. “My father was one of the country’s first forest rangers. He was a very good naturalist, seemed to know everything about everything. My mother was from a pioneer family in Montana; she was a real outdoors person.

 

“Mother used to note the significant natural occurrences of the day. She kept a calendar where she would record the first robins on the lawn, when the peas were planted, interesting nature observations.

 

“As the eldest of three children, and very competitive, I wanted to see my name on that calendar; I wanted to get the first robin or the first bluebird before anyone else.”

 

We were there to speak about changes to Plymouth, and the origins of the Manomet Bird Observatory, but Betty was repeatedly distracted by her memories of the natural world.

 

“There are close to 400 birds native to Massachusetts,” Betty interjected at one point, clutching one of the nature journals she has kept for years, “and I’ve seen 193. There are 46 ‘herps’ (salamanders and snakes), and I have seen 25. There are 108 Lepidoptera (butterflies) and have seen almost half, 47.”

 

Betty’s list is derived from over 60 years of personal observations made, in large part, on the family’s Middleborough farm Wolf Trap Hill.

 

There she has seen and chronicled everything from Great Blacked-backed Gulls flying high overhead, to moose and coyote, hog-nosed snakes and much, much more.

 

The journal also includes animals sighted in Montana, including grizzlies, and a rare sighting of the Eskimo Curlew while on an expedition with Massachusetts ornithologist Archie Hagar along the James Bay in northern Canada.

 

“Once an abundant migrant shore bird, huge flocks would land on coast of Massachusetts on the way to South America,” Betty explained. “But they were shot by the barrel load and haven’t been seen in the last 20 or 30 years.”

 

Research brought her to Manomet Point, but it was Betty’s childhood love of all creatures great and small that allowed her to see the potential when she got there.

 

“Manomet Point was already widely known for the number of shore birds and other species that either passed by during their migratory flights or were blown there by offshore storms, so it was a great place to net and band birds,” Betty said.

 

“That was how I first came in contact with the Fiskes, speaking to a local meeting of the American Ornithological Union about the special nature of Manomet Point. The Fiskes were relatives of Mrs. Roger Ernst, who owned a summer home there.”

 

John and Rosalie Fiske, who had recently visited European bird observatories, were eager to bring an observatory to the U.S., and they were the first to suggest to Betty that perhaps Manomet, and the Ernst home, were a perfect fit.

 

From there it took a while. The idea germinated. From their first meeting to a serious exploration of the site’s potential, to the formation of an observation group and recruitment of the first staff took several years.

 

Then in the fall of 1966 Betty and a group of volunteers began banding operations at the Ernst house. For the first three years that location served as a banding site for a government project to study bird migration along the East Coast.

 

Then, thanks to the generosity of Mrs. Roger Ernst, her house on Stage Point Road and 20 acres of land were donated to the nonprofit trust now officially named the Manomet Bird Observatory.

 

There are dozens now, but in 1969, with Betty as its executive director, the MBO, Point Reyes in California, Long Point in Ontario and the Powdermill Nature Reserve in Pennsylvania were the first four bird observatories in North America.

 

At this point in the conversation Betty focused on the other birds she netted in the first years of her tenure as executive director, key staff.

 

There was Brian Harrington, Mr. “Red Knot,” who is now a permanent resident of Plymouth and the president of the Herring Pond Watershed Alliance.

 

There was Trevor Lloyd Evans, whom she lured from England where he was helping to manage a bird observatory. He came on a two-year contract in 1972 and 45 years later is still there.

 

“Trevor was one of the best hires I ever made; he was a natural for dealing with people – and he knows his birds!” she said.

 

There was also the seabird biologist Kevin Powers, who immediately embarked on what was the first attempt to comprehensively assess the distribution of seabirds in the North Atlantic.

 

“I lured him here from Alaska,” Betty said, “which wasn’t that hard because his wife hated Alaska.”

 

“Any success that we had at MBO was due to the fabulous staff that I was fortunate to help put together,” Betty said. “They were the ones whose work was so important, so groundbreaking.”

 

From a simple statistical perspective that work is impressive. Since Betty began the MBO in 1969 through today Manomet has banded nearly 350,000 birds. The first bird banded by Betty and her cohorts was in 1966 and was a Black-capped Chickadee – the Massachusetts state bird. Manomet banded its 250,000th land bird in fall 2016 – a Gray Catbird.

 

In the end, though, as Betty nears her 95th birthday, what she most remembers are not the accolades or the reports or the growth of the organization; it’s the birds, and the bees, the flowers and trees.

 

“Before I ever dreamed of the MBO I would go to Manomet Point after a big storm,” Betty said, “because then the trees were full of birds, birds of all kinds and colors and size. They’d been blown off course by the storm and were glad to have someplace to finally land. It was beautiful. It still is.”

 

Follow Frank Mand on Twitter @frankmandOCM.