Elizabeth Dickens: a local hero, 100 years ago

Tue, 12/25/2012 - 9:55pm

"February 21, 1912: Canada Geese." Thus began Elizabeth Dicken’s 50-year habit of recording bird sightings on Block Island; and here we are, 100 years later, delving into those journals to discover and observe the birds of 1912, their common — sometimes individual — names, and the making of an amateur ornithologist.

The picture of Elizabeth Dickens’ development into a reknowned ornithologist emerges in the first volume of her journals (1912 – 1916). Like many birders of today, she started in fits and starts. At first she notes only a single species, with no indication of how many individuals were seen, and not on a daily basis. Between February 21 and April 18 of 1912, she recorded a single species on 18 days. Interestingly, on April 3, 4, 5 and 16, each notation was “Big flight Canada geese.” On April 21 her entry was simply “Horse stable swallows.” [I presume these are a specific pair (or group) of barn swallows as additional notations include: “Horse stable swallows hatched” (June 2, 1913), and “Horse stable swallows come out of nest” (June 21, 1913).]

From April 19 through May 28, 1912, the number of species observed on a day become multiple, but observations are not yet recorded daily. There are no recording of birds in June 1912. But on July 4, 1912, Elizabeth Dickens entered in her journal “Least sandpiper 4,” and thus began the habit of indicating the number of individuals seen. From July 4 to August 12, 1912, she recorded observations on 11 days. And then on August 13, 1912, with the list of: “Bartram’s tattler 4, Black-billed cuckoo 1, Yellowlegs 5, least sandpiper 5, spotted sandpiper 2, Semipalmated plover 1, Wilson tern 100, Ruddy turnstone 1, White-rumped sandpiper 25.” Miss Dickens skipped no days of recording for the next nearly 50 years.

Throughout the journals, Elizabeth Dickens made occasional other notations of interest as varied as:

"March 1, 1914: 8 a.m. temp 40. Wind at 5:30 pm 92 miles per hour. Loon 1, Herring gull 3, Meadow lark 3, Snowflake 1, Song sparrow 2. March ‘comes in like a lion.’ Fog and rain and terrific SE wind — wreck of 4 masted schooner Jacob Winslow at Split Rock Cove. 1 sailor drowned.”

"June 10, 1914: Bought oxen born in 1911.”

More germaine to her development as an ornithologist were the notations on April 21, 1913, that she attended H. L. Madison’s bird lecture; and on June 6 to 9, 1913, she took bird walking “trips” around Block Island with H. S. Hathaway. (H. L. Madison, Sr., was involved with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and curator at the Roger Williams Natural History Museum in Providence. H.S. Hathaway was a well known ornithologist of his time and contributed mightily to the natural history of birds in Rhode Island and New England.)

The first journal also contains a couple of entries that were clearly made by Elizabeth Dickens with an eye of recalling the past to inform the future. In the space for March 14, 1912, she has written “March 4, 1909 shot 1 Black Australian Swan at Dicken’s Point by Elazabeth Dickens – with a 22 rifle.” And also in the 1912 space she has written “Nov. 13, 1911 Big flight Great Blue Heron.”

I wish I knew what drove Miss Dickens: was it for beauty and curiosity, a pastime or hobby, a chance to contribute to her island community and the wider world as teacher and recorder, a neighborly connection? Whatever the reasons, I wonder if she knew that we would be searching her journals one hundred years later with an eagerness to glimpse at her era and envision her landscape, her wonder and the birds of Block Island — and the world — a century ago.

Inserted here is Elizabeth Dickens’ list of birds recorded in 1912. The old and colloquial names as use by her are retained — enjoy them. (The deciphering will come in a future article.) Note that she recorded only six species on her first December 26 (not yet a Christmas Bird Count) of bird observations. Join the Ocean View Foundation’s Community Bird Census on December 26 this year to celebrate and honor Elizabeth Dickens’ 100 year legacy.

Community Bird Census is an annual Ocean View Foundation event held on December 26 (traditionally the day that Elizabeth Dickens led the Christmas Bird Counts). This event encourages all who are interested in birds and enjoy the beauty of the island to spend part of the day keeping track of the birds they see. The short-term result of the day’s observations is the compilation of an island-wide bird list comprised of the sightings of many citizen scientists. In the long term these annual bird counts continue the work of Elizabeth Dickens and contribute to a much larger body of information.

All levels of participation are encouraged, from watching your bird feeder to traipsing the island. For details about Community Bird Census see the schedule below.

12th annual Community Bird Census • Wednesday, December 26

Feel free to participate as much or as little as you would like.

1. Meet at 9 a.m. at Sachem Pond where a spotting scope will be available for some early morning duck watching, and to join with others to make a plan for a day of birding.

2. Bird Walk led by Kim Gaffett at a location determined at 9 a.m. based on wind and weather.

3. During the middle of the day, participants will employ whatever means desirable to make a list of birds seen that day. The options for making these observations range from taking one or more walks, to watching your bird feeder from the warmth of your house.

4. At 2 p.m. we will meet at Bethany’s Airport Diner to begin to compile the list, enjoy some hot cider and revel in the stories of the day. Anyone wishing to call-in his or her Block Island observations may call Kim Gaffett at 466-2224. (To reach Kim “in the field” call 595-7055.)

This list of bird species seen by Elizabeth Dickens during 1912 uses the common names as recorded in the first volume of her journals housed at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island in Smithfield, R.I. The six species with (numbers) are the birds that ED recorded on Dec. 26, 1912.


Pied-billed grebe

Horned grebe (1)

Holboell Grebe (1)

Cory’s shearwater


Cormorant — shag

Great Blue Heron

Little blue heron

Green heron

Black-crowned night-heron


Turkey Buzzard


Canada Goose



Black duck

Blue-winged teal


American scoter

Surf scoter

White-winged scoter

Red-breasted merganser (2)

Ruddy duck


Marsh hawk


Duck hawk

Sparrow hawk

Sora rail


Wall-eyed plover

Black-bellied plover

Semipalmated plover

Wilson’s snipe

Hudsonian curlew

Long-billed curlew

Greater yellowlegs

Lesser yellowlegs

Solitary sandpiper

Spotted sandpiper

Ruddy turnstone

Semipalmated sandpiper

Least sandpiper

White-rumped sandpiper

Bartramian sandpiper

Pectoral sandpiper

Stilt sandpiper

Bartram’s tattler

Pomarine jaeger

Great black-backed gull

Glaucous gull

Herring gull (10)


Wilson’s tern

Passenger pigeon

Mourning dove

Black-billed cuckoo

Yellow-billed cuckoo


Chimney swift


Scarlet-crested flicker

Yellow-bellied flycatcher


Migrant shrike

Great northern shrike

Yellow-throated vireo

Blue jay


Fish Crow

Horned lark (35)

Purple martin

Bank swallow

Barn swallow

Red-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

Brown creeper

Ruby-crowned kinglet



Wilson’s thrush

Wood thrush


Brown thrasher


Cedar waxwing

Yellow warbler

Chestnut-sided warbler

Myrtle warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Blackburnian warbler

Pine warbler

Yellow palm warbler

Blackpoll warbler

Black-and-white warbler


Maryland yellowthroat

Wilson’s warbler

Scarlet tanager


Chipping Sparrow

Vesper sparrow

Henslow sparrow

Fox sparrow


Snowflake (50)

Rose-breasted grosbeak


Red-winged black bird


Purple Grackle