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Remembering Rich Stallcup

We at the ABA were very sorry to hear of the passing of California birder Rich Stallcup, who died this week following a long illness.  Rich was undoubtedly one of the giants of North American birding, the recipient of the ABA’s Ludlow Griscom Award for Outstanding Contributions to Regional Ornithology in 2002, and a man whose kindness and knowledge are felt far beyond his Marin County home. 

Though we all felt his influence, none of us at the ABA knew Rich quite like those in the California birding community, and Tom Leskiw, of Eureka, California, offers a memorial to a man who will be missed very much. – Nate Swick

–=====–

 

Each blade of grass has its spot on earth

whence it draws its strength;

and so is man rooted to the land from which

he draws his faith together with his life

                             –Joseph Conrad

 

Stallcup Juliet Grable

photo by Juliet Grable

I can’t count myself among the fortunate folks who’ve spent a lot of time in the company of Rich Stallcup.  However, occasionally, our paths crossed and we  corresponded via email.  The timing of Rich’s passing has re-impressed upon me the mysterious ways of the universe and how events seem to intersect far more often than the laws of probability and chance might suggest.

Several days before he died, I read a captivating piece of prose by David Gessner in  Orion magazine entitled “Brant’s Requiem.” Gessner’s work of fiction focused on the  last week of life of writer-poet “Kenneth Brant.” Firmly grounded in the naturalist  tradition, Brant’s work embodied bioregionalism—drawing inspiration from the patch  of ground and surrounding area he called home. Brant’s final days at his homestead  near “The Cape” were enlivened by spending time with a younger poet and videographer who’d offered to help Brant put his field notes in order and tape several interviews before it was too late.

“Brant’s Requiem”—at once taut, reverent, and playful—compelled me to write a letter to the editor of Orion:

    David Gessner’s “Brant’s Requiem” was a moving, evocative work of prose. More importantly, it reminds us of our place in the Circle of Life. Namely, that mentors and others who have inspired us deserve mention before their walk down the Great Passage. We’re limited only by our imagination: newsletter articles, interviews, or simply connecting with a mentor for a walk to look at  birds or plants are all suitable tributes.

Rich’s passing got me to thinking: one measure of the Great Ones is their ability to influence people they’ve never or only rarely met. Rich is well known, along with C.J. Ralph, as the discoverer of the amazing spring and fall vagrant phenomenon on outer Point Reyes and other migrant traps along the coast. To say that we birders have followed in Stallcup’s–as well as Guy McCaskie’s–footsteps is to state the obvious.

For instance, I birded Humboldt County hard—Elk Head, the Rose Patch at Clam Beach, Fairhaven—on September 6 and 7, 1996, without a migrant to show for my efforts. I’d heard that Rich sometimes employed his vagrant-chasing “lite” strategy: driving coastal locations slowly, with the windows rolled down, to listen for chickadee flocks. So, the next day, I emulated his technique along Scenic Drive between Westhaven and  Trinidad. Bingo! I got onto a megaflock that included five species of warblers, with a Magnolia Warbler being the highlight.

My appetite whetted, I returned on September 27, heard chickadees, and stopped.  The flock included a Yellow-throated Vireo! Over the next two days, a grand, local “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” ensued, with many of Humboldt’s most-ardent birders tallying the following species: Willow Flycatcher; Blue-headed Vireo; Chestnut-sided, Hooded, Blackpoll, Nashville, Palm, Hermit, and Black-throated Gray Warblers; Sage Thrasher;  and Vesper and Brewer’s Sparrows. Finding  a 3rd Humboldt record Yellow-throated Vireo would have been fulfilling enough, but to have discovered a hotspot delivered an adrenal rush not soon forgotten—one I owed to Rich.

On November 5, 1997, the Kure oil spill occurred in Humboldt, affecting both bay and offshore waters. My birding compadre John Hunter, an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was recruited to monitor its impacts on seabirds. While working offshore, he garnered his county Black-vented Shearwater. Because we took our “home ground” county list seriously, after mentally congratulating him on his finding, my thoughts immediately turned to “How the heck do I get offshore?”

I didn’t have any contacts, so I did the next best thing: went to Table Bluff to do a seawatch. About a half-hour of searching produced nothing noteworthy. Then, a lumbering Pink-footed Shearwater suddenly appeared in the same field of view as my target species. Success! And having the two birds side-by-side for comparison made me certain of the ID.

Although I felt good about my sighting, I knew that my desire to keep pace with John had the potential to cloud my judgment. So, you can imagine my relief when Stallcup visited Humboldt a day or two later… and saw Black-vented Shearwaters offshore from Table Bluff.

Rich led an annual spring herpetology trip that brought him to Humboldt. The skilled überbirder that he was, you’d better have your schedule cleared for several days or have an incredibly understanding boss or professor, because you knew you’d be springing into chase mode. Tufted Duck and Franklin’s Gull come to mind, and there were undoubtedly other noteworthy birds located during the search for amphibians and reptiles.

Clam Beach lies near my former home in Westhaven, adjacent to Trinidad. Sand dunes end abruptly at an alder-willow grove along a creek:  perfect attributes for a vagrant patch. So, I braved the mosquitoes and cleared some trails, dubbing it the “Rose Patch” in honor of the feral bush near the patch’s entrance. My efforts were rewarded with multiple American Redstarts that first summer, although I was unable to confirm breeding. Then, on September 28, 1996, I reported a Northern Waterthrush from there to NWCALBIRD. Rich promptly emailed me. “Tell me more about this Rose Patch. Where is it? What else have you seen there?” That’s the kind of person Rich was, one with an innate curiosity for
all things avian within the borders of our Golden State… and beyond.

Rich’s status as a respected ornithologist and accomplished writer made him a logical choice to be asked for a jacket quote for the “Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Humboldt County, California.” His generous words in support of the publication furnished a welcome capstone to the 10-year effort. Rich’s enthusiasm for avian projects large and small was well-known. When my first piece appeared in Birding—detailing a Barred Owl’s probable predation upon a Spotted Owl—Rich’s email was the first I received offering congratulations.

Fittingly, the first time I bumped into Rich was during fall at Point Reyes. John Sterling and our merry band of Vagrants were venturing beyond the Redwood Curtain, en route to desert oases. Rich was leading a field trip, which didn’t allow much time for chatting. But he had a presence about him, one amplified by meeting him on his home ground. I read yesterday online that in the 42 years since he’d co-founded the Point Reyes Christmas Bird Count, he’d never missed one, underscoring his relationship to that special place.

    It seems to me that Kenneth Brant’s Cape and Rich Stallcup’s Point are an apt analogy: people whose lives have been replenished on a daily  basis through their interactions with their home ground.  And they’re not the only ones: Witness Guy McCaskie in the Tijuana River Valley and Salton Sea. Jon Dunn in the Owens Valley. Kristie Nelson near Mono Lake. Todd Easterla in the lower Sacramento Valley. Bruce Deuel in the northern Sacramento Valley. Gary Lester and David Fix in Humboldt. Alan Barron in Del Norte. Jim Lomax, John Luther, John Sterling, and others who’ve expanded the definition of home ground to encompass all of California’s 58 counties. Space precludes mentioning all of you, but you know who you are and what your home ground means to you.

Thanks, Rich, for sharing your knowledge and illuminating the unique nature of each spot—and the benefits of becoming intimate with our  home ground.

Tom Leskiw

December 18, 2012

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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