Athol Bird & Nature Club celebrates 60 years of education, land conservation


For the Athol Daily News

Published: 03-06-2023 5:03 PM

ATHOL – After six decades educating the public about the great outdoors, Athol’s Bird & Nature Club is planning a big anniversary celebration.

The organization was founded in 1963 by Athol Junior High School science teacher Bob Coyle. According to the group’s website, the club was a spin-off of the science curriculum which included studies in astronomy, geology, geography and field ornithology.

Club President David Small has been involved with the ABNC since nearly the beginning. Small’s father ran Tully Dam and he attended Royalston Schools before becoming a student at Athol junior high and high schools.

“I went to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, where I majored in park management,” the conservationist told the Athol Daily News. “Then I went on to UMass, where I got my bachelor’s and I worked in parks pretty much my whole career.”

Small worked at a zoo in Stoneham for a few years, but kept an eye out for transfers to Western Mass, eventually ending up at Quabbin as a supervisor and forester. He retired from there as the assistant regional director of the Quabbin/Ware River Watershed.

A history with the outside world

The ABNC is not just a group of bird watchers. The club’smission, said Small, is to enhance the appreciation of natural history by the people of the North Quabbin region.

“Bob Coyle was a geologist first, but was also a birder and also interested in astronomy and a lot of other things,” he said. “So, it has a basic natural history orientation.”

In 1997, it was decided the club would establish a museum and nature center. In addition, it began working with other conservation groups to protect the land.

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“What we thought back in ‘97 is actually what we’re doing now,” he said. “It’s pretty uncanny that we thought that far ahead.”

Small said the recent pandemic may have sharpened people’s appreciation of the natural world.

“Overall, I think people have much more appreciation of what’s around them locally,” he said. “I think the pandemic was one of those examples of people all of a sudden weren’t gathering in groups and the only thing they could do is maybe take a walk in the woods.”

Small says he gets questions and pictures emailed on a regular basis asking him to identify a specific insect or bird. He said tries to answer them all, but if he doesn’t know the answer, likely knows someone who does. If someone hasn’t seen a lot of the birds they’re used to at this time of year, Small probably has an explanation.

“We had a big drought this summer,” he said. “For a lot of the fruiting entities, whether it be acorns or crab apples or other berries or whatever, it’s been a pretty poor year. Wintering birds – I don’t know how they figure it out – they go where the food is. Somehow they figure out what is a good seed year or a bad seed year in particular region, and that’s what happened this year.

“We didn’t have any of the winter finches to speak of, like the pine siskin or the red pole or the evening grosbeak, whatever. (The evening grosbeak) is an interesting case because when I was growing up, we’d have flocks of hundreds of them around here for the winter. Over the last few decades, they’ve moved their whole winter range north and west. There’s a flock of 20 or 30 in Royalston Center and folks are coming from all over the state to Royalston Center to see those.”

Protecting the landscape

The Athol Bird & Nature Club has been very involved over the years to conserve significant areas in North Quabbin, such as the South Athol Conservation Area.

“I think the influence Bob Coyle had on my generation is pretty significant in Athol,” said the 71-year-old Small. “Every time we’ve come up for a Town Meeting vote for something to do with conservation it kind of slides through pretty quickly. I think that has to do with having exposed every eighth grader in the town – for 25 years – to an appreciation of the outdoors.”

Small thinks that appreciation has, in turn, been passed down to the children and grandchildren of Coyle’s students and associates. The club, for its part, is trying to impart that love of nature to the younger children in the area.

“We take every first-grader from Athol and Royalston through here in May,” he said. “We have three days where we have 50 kids at a time.”

The ABNC holds a variety of conferences and workshops throughout the year. As an example, Small cited a dragonfly conference that attracted so many people from around New England that the club had to utilize the hall at St. Francis Church, across Main Street from the club’s home in the Miller’s River Environmental Center. Hybrid events held during the pandemic drew participants from Maine to Washington state.

Events celebrating the club’s 60th year will take place later this fall, according to Small. He appears optimistic about the future of the club, which boasts some 250 members.

“Most bird clubs are pretty narrowly focused,” he said. “But we have a lot of plant people, we do astronomy nights, we do geology field trips. It’s the diversity and the inclusiveness of the club that attracts people. We’re very open to anybody who’s got a whacky idea to come and hang out with us. The doors are open.”

The Millers River Environmental Center is open by appointment throughout the year and on Sunday afternoons in July and August.

Greg Vine can be reached at