Three tragic losses for the birding world

Elsa Thompson
Elsa Thompson and Bill Thompson III at the American Birding Expo. Photo by Wendy Clark

On Saturday, May 25, the North American birding community lost two remarkable, important women: Elsa Thompson, the co-founder of Bird Watcher’s Digest magazine, and Mary Jo Ballator, the owner of the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary in the Huachuca Mountains of southeastern Arizona. And on Friday, May 31, news broke that Dutch birder Ewold Horn, who had been taken captive while on a birding trip in the Philippines in 2012, was killed when he attempted to flee his captors during a raid by army troops. Here are brief notes about each of them.

Elsa Thompson

Thompson died after a house fire at her home in Marietta, Ohio. Firefighters pulled her from the house, but she later died at a hospital due to smoke inhalation. She was 85. Elsa and her late husband Bill Thompson, Jr. launched the magazine from their home in 1978. Their son, the magazine’s editor and co-publisher Bill Thompson III, died on March 25 after a brief struggle with pancreatic cancer.

Eldon Greij, the founding editor of Birder’s World (renamed BirdWatching in 2011), recalled first meeting Elsa in 1991 on a birding press trip to Jamaica.

“Elsa and I enjoyed the birds and each other’s sense of humor, becoming fast friends,” Eldon said. “A common element was both of us starting a birding magazine. Not a hint of competition between us. Elsa was warm, charming, and a strong family person. I last spoke to her about two months ago, after the tragic death of her son Bill. She was devastated but already thinking about the future of BWD. She will be missed.”

Elsa became interested in birds in the early 1970s, when her family moved to Marietta, Ohio, and she began reading a weekly newspaper column written by a local birder, Pat Murphy. Elsa joined Murphy’s birding group and became obsessed with birdwatching. She took her kids birding and eventually convinced her husband to come along. By 1978, the Thompson family launched Bird Watcher’s Digest.

Elsa served on the board of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute for many years, and she was active with many local organizations, including the Marietta Natural History Society, which she founded, and her alma mater, Marietta College. 

Mary Jo Ballator with her pet African Grey Parrot in her bird sanctuary. Photo courtesy Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory

Mary Jo Ballator

Ballator died at hospice in Tucson surrounded by her family. She was 74. She had created the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast, which was later renamed the Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary.

“Mary Jo loved and cherished and was knowledgeable of everything to do with the natural world,” her friend Tony Battiste wrote on Facebook. “She was a master gardener, enthusiastic bird watcher, protector of everything living, creepy crawlers, insects, reptiles, mammals. She created a garden especially for the birds, but the banquet that she served daily drew every other kind of living thing, raccoons, ring-tailed cats, fox, javelina, deer and pesky Black Bears that often destroyed her feeders. Mary Jo could easily have ended their behavior by calling in Game and Fish to have the bears removed, but that was not in her nature. She knew that the end of her nuisance would also mean the end of the bears’ existence and that would be contrary to all she believed in. If she couldn’t kill a spider, she surely could not live with the thought of being responsible for the death of a bear.

“Mary Jo became instantly famous back in 2003, when a Plain-capped Starthroat hummingbird showed up in her garden. Birders came from across the country to see this rarity. Soon it was discovered that Lucifer Hummingbirds could be seen here like nowhere else in southeastern Arizona.

“Mary Jo opened her unique garden to the general public from dawn to dusk from that time to her passing, graciously sharing her birds and her knowledge to all that visited. In recent years, she had to give up her bed and breakfast business due to health reasons, but the birding Gods smiled down on her by sending Montezuma Quail to her garden, one of the Holy Grail birds that all birders seek to add to their life list. The bird sanctuary became the one sure spot to be able to see this secretive species. Mary Jo was my first friend when I moved to AZ. She was my BEST friend. She was a friend of EVERYONE that ever met her. Mary Jo will be missed, but her legacy will live on through the avian garden bird sanctuary she poured her life and soul into creating.”

Battiste added that the sanctuary will renamed the Mary Jo Ballator Bird Sanctuary and will be closed until at least July 1. The sanctuary will need volunteers who can maintain feeders and the garden and act as docents to assist visiting birders. He also noted that a memorial is tentatively being planned for September.

The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory share this info about how birders can help:

“At https://bit.ly/RememberingMJB you can leave a message for the family and/or others and a remembrance of Mary Jo. You can also leave an e-mail address to be notified when donations are being accepted for a new non-profit being established to maintain the sanctuary and keep Mary Jo’s legacy alive. We are hoping to raise enough funds to pay outstanding expenses and create a fund to help with site-host, maintenance and other on-going expenses.”

Ewold Horn

Ewold Horn. Credit: ABS-CBN/NOS

Horn, 59, died during a firefight between his captors and army troops in the jungle town of Patikul in Sulu province. He, a Swiss friend, and their Filipino guide were abducted on a birding trip in the region in 2012. The other two later escaped, but Horn remained captive for seven years.

An article from ABS-CBN news recounts an interview with a friend of Horn’s:

“He was so frustratingly close,” said his friend Klaas Nanninga in Dutch during an interview with public news program NOS. Nanninga shared Horn’s passion for birds.

During the interview at a natural museum in Groningen where Horn was based, biologist Nanninga showed stuffed birds and specimens that Horn helped make.

Nanninga also showed the image of a rare double-horned hornbill that Horn had wanted to see. There are only 40 specimens in the world and Horn wanted to see one, according to his friend. This search for the rare Sulu hornbill brought Horn to the Philippines in February 2012.

Nanninga recalled how Horn worked with endless patience on each specimen. Preparing animals is a combination of craftsmanship and technology, he says, a profession that shows a lot of your personality.

“You have to know the bird down to the last detail: that’s how he worked…The placement of the eyes, that is a matter of millimeters,” he said.

He said Horn was like no other when it came to his passion and craft. “Preserving an animal is not that difficult. But the art is to really bring it to life, so that it seems to be frozen over time. And I learned that from Ewold. His soul, his love, his commitment…”

We send our condolences to the family and friends of Elsa, Mary Jo, and Ewold.

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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