Author leading virtual birdwatching ‘tour’ through Northfield library program

  • “Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts Through Birds”

  • Author John Nelson pictured with two ravens during a 2016 visit to the Tower of London in England. Nelson will lead a virtual birdwatching “tour” of Massachusetts and beyond on Thursday, Feb. 4. Contributed Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2021 3:28:31 PM

NORTHFIELD — Association of Massachusetts Bird Clubs founder and author John R. Nelson will take residents under his wing next month for a virtual birdwatching “tour” of Massachusetts and beyond.

Nelson, a Gloucester resident, is the author of “Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts Through Birds.” Like his book, his Zoom presentation on Thursday, Feb. 4, sponsored by the Dickinson Memorial Library of Northfield in collaboration with the Libraries in the Woods, will be imbued with personal experience, literary references, history and humor.

Those who are interested in participating must email the Dickinson Memorial Library at to register for the program, held from 7 to 8 p.m.

At 74 years old, Nelson is a retired English professor of North Shore Community College, where he also served on the board of trustees. He founded the Association of Massachusetts Bird Clubs in 2016 to establish a means of communication between clubs, enabling them to share information about events, bird sightings, initiatives to protect birds or their habitats, and more. More than 16 clubs are part of the association.

Nelson said he “came to birding late” in life, after his retirement, but quickly became infatuated with the hobby.

“I played sports until my body gave out in major ways, then I turned to biking for exercise,” Nelson said. “Then I began to notice different birds, and couldn’t believe they had been there all along. … Then I was hooked.”

After a couple of decades birdwatching, Nelson has explored many areas of Massachusetts, and the world. He said his book has “more literary influence than other birding books.” The book is a collection of “freestanding but interconnected essays” about Nelson’s experiences.

“It’s partly my personal story of what birding has meant to me,” he said.

Parts of the book are more traditional, with one chapter diving into the history of birds in Massachusetts. Some chapters are dedicated to specific regions, including “tours” around the state. The chapters discuss the birds that are found in each area, and what’s special about these places.

“I never imagined being a nature or bird writer, but a couple of years after I started birding I began writing narrative stories for a birding magazine,” Nelson recounted.

He began to combine personal experiences with researched information for the literary magazines he wrote for. “Flight Calls: Exploring Massachusetts Through Birds” includes a lot of new material, he said.

“There’s a lot more humor, or attempts at humor, than most bird books,” Nelson said. “It’s gotten good responses, and is aimed at a general readership. It can capture serious birders, but it doesn’t make assumptions about what readers know to still be engaging for casual birders.”

The Feb. 4 discussion will also see Nelson discuss birds native to Western Massachusetts. Near Franklin County, Nelson said he has seen evening grosbeaks, a rare bird in Massachusetts. This golden bird is also called a winter finch, and has black coloring on its face and wing edges, and white at the center of its wings. Occasionally, a group of them return to a house in Royalston. They may also be spotted at the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area.

In his time birdwatching, Nelson has explored close to 60 different countries. In search of birds, Nelson has gone “farther and farther afield, first to birdy spots around Massachusetts ... next cross-country to the Rio Grande and Saguaro deserts, then beyond to whole new families of birds in Belize, Brazil, Botswana, Bhutan and Borneo.” Some of his favorite places include Bhutan, a country in the Himalayas, and Mongolia, a landlocked country in East Asia.

“The more time I spend with birds, the more they’ve become sources of stimulation, not just visual treats or searches rewarded,” Nelson writes in his book. “They’ve catalyzed the childlike curiosity, one of the great blessings of being human, that becomes dormant in so many of us.”

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-930-4579.

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