Counting the Birds in South Wellfleet

Late in 1929 and early in 1930, a surgeon from Westchester County, New York, Dr. Oliver L. Austin, purchased a number of acres in South Wellfleet, just north of the Eastham border that is marked by Hatches Creek.  The Macpherson family owned the land.  Earlier owners included the Lincoln family, the Atwoods, the Witherells and others. The 1858 Walling Map shows all these families as mid-nineteenth century South Wellfleet residents.

Dr. Austin’s intention was to establish a bird banding station – an idea from his son, Oliver L. Austin, Jr., a recent Harvard graduate in ornithology. While Oliver Jr. was the professional ornithologist, Dr. Austin Sr. appears to have been thoroughly involved in the operation of the facility, known as the Austin Ornithology Research Center. A 1930 newspaper account indicates that the Austins had been coming to Provincetown from their home in Tuckahoe, New York, for fifteen years before they established their Center.  Throughout its life — until it was sold to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1959 — the Center was supported with private funds, presumably Dr. Austin’s.

It’s not clear from my research on the Austins whether the father or the son became interested first in studying birds. Oliver Austin Jr. grew up in Tuckahoe, N.Y., and graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. His studies at Harvard University appear to have set his career as an ornithologist. In 1927, he and his father together organized a cruise to Labrador to study arctic birds. They took a schooner out of Provincetown, captained by Richard Parmenter, who had some experience already as a Labrador explorer. A Boston newspaper account described the Austins’ interest in the natural history of the Arctic regions and their intent on banding “nestlings.” The ship had “a supply of 10,000 non-rusting metal tags.” Unfortunately, the schooner blew ashore at Hurricane Harbor, Baffin Island, and the Austins had to return overland to New Brunswick. Another account indicates that the Austins went to Labrador twice, in 1927 and 1928; this formed the basis for young Austin’s doctoral dissertation, which was later published as “The Birds of Newfoundland Labrador.”

The systematic study of birds began early in the 19th Century throughout many countries. We have our John James Audubon and his masterly paintings from that time.  Late in the century the studies became more scientific, and banding became a way to measure migration, longevity, mortality, territoriality, feeding behavior and other aspects of bird life. The 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Canada provided new impetus to gather data that would protect migratory birds.

After Harvard, young Austin worked for the Bureau of Biological Survey in Minnesota, and later surveyed terns on the East Coast. Nevertheless, as the Depression deepened, government biologists were laid off, and Oliver and his wife returned to New York — and then to Cape Cod where they settled in Wellfleet as year-round citizens. Austin conducted research at the Center, and taught young ornithologists who studied there. An article published in the Auk, the journal of the American Ornithological Union, where Austin served as editor from 1968 to 1977, describes his career.

A 1932 article in the journal Bird Banding described the Austin Research Station as 600 acres – that it was bisected by the King’s Highway, and that the Center had “guardianship control” over the land all the way to the Atlantic coast. Much of this land became part of the National Seashore much later. (Other articles describe the Ornithology Center/Station at 300 or 400 acres.)

By the 1930s, South Wellfleet was in its nadir as a place where people lived, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts about South Wellfleet’s population contraction following its fishing heyday. By 1930 there were very few houses extant until the County Road reached the area around the former Congregational Church and its graveyard.

The 1932 article in Bird Banding describes “a commodious dwelling” serving as a quarters for as large a staff as possible – during the season of early May to late October – when “young college men of more or less ornithological enthusiasm” worked on the tasks of

Austin home and research center. Image from April 1932 issue of 'Bird Banding"

Austin home and research center. Image from April 1932
issue of ‘Bird Banding”

banding many species of birds. Careful field notes were entered into daily records, and many hours of motion-picture film were made. In the first two years of operation 13,600 birds were banded, from 112 species. More than half the banding was of terns, the bird studied by Oliver Austin Jr. In addition to locations at the Center, tern colonies on Billingsgate Island were studied.

The 1932 article alludes to more serious scientific work commencing in the fall of 1931, possibly when young Oliver moved there permanently. He jokingly told a writer that during this time he had an “orchid business”” and played bridge for money to support himself.  Other articles mention his floral business.

Austin Landscape, early 1930's. Image from April 1932 issue  of "Bird Banding."

Austin Landscape, early 1930’s. Image from April 1932 issue
of “Bird Banding.”

Newspaper accounts during the 1930s mention Dr. Austin’s bailing out one of Wellfleet’s young men who was caught setting a fire in town.

At some point, Dr. Austin moderated the Wellfleet Town Meeting, and was one of the organizers of the Board of Trade. In 1935, Dr. Austin was the citizen who stood up at the Town Meeting and moved to strike a proposed resolution that the town would require “head to knees” bathing attire. Some of the town’s residents were offended by the practice of strolling through town in bathing suits — even the covered-up version of the mid-1930s.

When World War II began, Dr. Austin joined the U.S. Navy, serving in the South Pacific.  At the end of the war, he served in South Korea for nearly a year, still in the Navy, where he completed his research on a book about the birds of Korea.  As a Lt. Commander, he joined General MacArthur’s staff in Japan and was named as the Chief of the Wildlife Branch of the military government.

Dr. Austin’s family – his wife and two young sons – joined him in Japan; I found a note posted online from his granddaughter, commenting on her father’s tales of living as a child in Occupied Japan. The family returned to the Cape in 1950. A new publication, The Cape Codder, reported on Dr. Austin’s slide lectures to the local Rotary and other groups during that time. Dr. Austin received a Guggenheim Fellowship and produced another important book on the birds of Japan. After only three years, the Austin family moved south as Dr. Austin pursued his profession. He did not live on the Cape again.

The work on behalf of the birds in South Wellfleet continued. In 1946, the Austin Ornithological Station was under the direction of Jim Adamson, Superintendent, and Gertrude Benner, ornithologist. The senior Dr. Austin died in 1957 at age 86; in 1959 the land and buildings of the Ornithological Station were sold to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, supported by private gifts from the Mellon family. The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary today, covering more than 1,000 acres, is a South Wellfleet jewel.

In my research, I came across several references to a sweet tale of music composition. Jerome Kern was a friend of the senior Dr. Austin, and came to visit the South Wellfleet Center more than once. The piano he composed on was mentioned in the 1959 transfer to Massachusetts Audubon. One of Kern’s most famous songs “I’ve Told Every Little Star” (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) is supposed to have its opening notes from the song sparrows he heard in South Wellfleet.


Austin, Oliver L., M.D., “The Austin Ornithological Research Station,” Bird Banding, Volume 3, No. 2, April, 1932, Page 51 – 62.

Clench, Mary H. and J. William Hardy, “In Memoriam: Oliver L. Austin Jr.”  The Auk,  Number 106, page 706 – 723, October 1989.

The Cape Codder digital files available online at


Family history researcher living in New York City.
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4 Responses to Counting the Birds in South Wellfleet

  1. Pingback: Mosquitoes in South Wellfleet, and Green Heads too | South Wellfleet, Massachusetts

  2. Valerie Austin, Ph.D. says:

    I once asked OLA Jr, the ornithologist, when he decided to become an ornithologist. “I always knew,” he snorted at me. A moment or so later, after some reflection, he added, “I remember handling a bird at about age 4 and knowing that that was what I wanted to do with my life.” From other things he told me, his father, OLA Sr., known in the family as “Dr. Papa”, had long been an amateur ornithologist and the passion for birds and the natural world rubbed off on his children (and great grandchildren).

  3. Pingback: South Wellfleet when Maurice’s Campground Opened | South Wellfleet, Massachusetts

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