scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Strickland Wheelock wants you to see this bird

Spring migration is in full swing, and the “Pied Piper” of Mass Audubon wants you to notice

Strickland Wheelock (left) led a bird tour in the Great Swamp in Kingston, R.I., which he has been doing for generations.DebeeTlumacki

WEST KINGSTON, R.I. — Strickland Wheelock was walking down a wooded path, a battered Red Sox cap on his head and a pair of binoculars dangling from his neck, when he stopped suddenly and pointed to the distance.

“There’s an Eastern towhee calling its name,” he exclaimed. “Hear it? Tow-hee. Tow-hee.”

Behind him, the dozen birders following him through the Great Swamp Wildlife Management Area went silent and listened until, yes, yes, they heard it as well. Tow-hee. Tow-hee.

An Eastern towhee was spotted in the leaves as Strickland Wheelock led a bird tour in the Great Swamp.DebeeTlumacki

“I call him the Pied Piper,” Amy Loveless whispered to a reporter who was tagging along. “I’ve been birding with him for years, and it’s always the same. He’s up ahead, we’re all trailing behind, and he’ll hear this far-off snippet of a song and know exactly what it is. And no matter how many times he’s heard it, he’ll still get excited, and then everyone will get excited.”


For generations of New England birders, being infected by Strickland Wheelock’s enthusiasm is a rite of passage. He’s 78 now, has been a regular at Worcester-area bird clubs since he was just 7, and has spent most of his life being a Pied Piper for Mass Audubon, leading birding trips that seek to find the rare and appreciate the everyday.

“I’ve seen 750 species of birds in the United States, but what’s most fun is to share that,” said Wheelock, who is famous for inviting everyone to look through his scope when he’s got a bird in focus. That includes strangers who just happen to be walking by.

His birding story began when he was a child in Uxbridge, in the house he still lives in. No one in his family was a birder, but they had a feeder on a window, and Wheelock became fascinated by a gorgeous yellow bird called an evening grosbeak. He would pull a blanket over his head so the birds wouldn’t know he was there, and spend hours sketching them, often coming down with mysterious ailments to stay home from school and keep drawing.


From there, serendipity connected him with a counselor at a summer camp in Maine who taught him how to band birds for research (something he still does); to a high school headmaster who took him out before school to teach him how to identify birds by their songs; and to Hobart College, where he roomed with a man named Bill Gette, who was an avid birder. They still chase birds together; they’re going to Alaska next month.

Strickland Wheelock (center) has been leading birding trips for decades.DebeeTlumacki

He would eventually go into the family business — the Wheelocks have been in the wool business in Uxbridge since 1810, and he runs Wheelock Textiles today — but birds are his love, and turning people onto them became his passion, preaching a simple philosophy of “Stop. Listen. Pay attention.”

For more than three decades, he has been leading trips out of Mass Audubon’s Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary in Lincoln. Which is what he was doing on this day in Rhode Island, following a long van ride where he played bird songs, told everyone his story on how he became a birder, and insisted on hearing theirs.

“He’s definitely a rare bird himself,” said Renata Pomponi, the former sanctuary director at Drumlin Farm who now serves as senior director of strategic initiatives for Mass Audubon. “He has a unique ability to connect people to nature through the lens of a birding scope which creates a stronger desire to protect it.”


A pine warbler was spotted during the birding tour.DebeeTlumacki

It’s something that comes through quickly, according to Anna Taft, a birder from the South End who was on her first trip with Wheelock. “He’s generous; that’s the word that comes to mind,” Taft said. “And he has this way of wanting you to understand what you’re seeing and hearing. It’s not just, ‘It’s this bird.’ It’s. ‘Listen for three notes and then it goes into a jumble,’ and then you listen and you hear it.”

The serious birding world is famous for being competitive, and dismissive. Many are interested only in adding to their so-called life list, the number of different species of birds they’ve seen or heard, and race around chasing reports of rare birds, not the least bit interested in a common rock dove (what non-birders call a “pigeon”).

And Wheelock can certainly tap into the competitiveness that made him a top-ranked tennis player into his 60s, but he tries to keep that confined to Mass Audubon’s annual birdathon — an event where teams compete to see the most species in 24 hours. (Wheelock is known to spend weeks coming up with a detailed, war-room plan for the Drumlin Farm team.) The rest of the time, he tries be the opposite, according to Dan Fournier, who has been going on birding trips with Wheelock since he was 10.

“He’s taught me everything I know about birds, and especially to be inclusive and appreciative,” said Fournier, who is 29 now and was helping to lead the Rhode Island trip. “Just because you see a chickadee or a robin all the time doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing and exciting.”


Just then, Wheelock hears an ovenbird, a small species of warbler, but can’t locate it, so employs the trick of playing a recording of its song to get it to come in to investigate.

“OK, guys, I’m going to see if we can draw him out, so gather around and be ready,” he says to the group. “He’ll probably come right in.”

He connects his phone to a small Bluetooth speaker, then plays the song: tea-cher, Tea-cher, TEA-cher.

Soon, everyone is enjoying the sight of the bird, and Wheelock is enjoying the sight of the people.

A group of birders looked up while on Wheelock's tour.DebeeTlumacki
A great blue heron was spotted above the Great Swamp.DebeeTlumacki

Billy Baker can be reached at Follow him on Instagram @billy_baker.