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Open Mic: Remembering Ted Parker

At the Mic: Gregg Gorton

Gregg Gorton is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. His principal scholarly and research interests have been in the areas of personality disorders, addiction, residency education, and psychoecology. He has published more than forty academic papers and book chapters, but he has also co-edited a radical arts journal, and published poetry and birding-related articles, and is currently at work on a biography of the legendary field ornithologist, Ted Parker.

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     We lost Theodore A. Parker, III, when a Cessna six-seater plunged into the canopy enshrouding a   cloud-forest mountain near the coast of southwestern Ecuador twenty years ago. Al Gentry, the premier neotropical botanist, Eduardo Aspiazu Estrada, a leader in Ecuadoran conservation, and Raul Mortensen Jimenez, the pilot, were also lost. Most ornithologists are very familiar with Ted Parker and his work, but since most birders in North America who remember him at all do so mostly because of his still-extant world Big Day record from Peru in 1982 (331 species in a one-square-mile area on foot and in canoe, with Scott Robinson), I would like to share some of what I have learned about him while preparing a biography of this legendary figure. I believe we can still glean some inspiration by following the trajectory of his life and career.

    In referring to Parker, some have used characterizations such as “the greatest birder ever,” “the Mozart of ornithology,” “a savant,” “a genius,” or other outsized descriptors– but just who was this fellow who died at 40 years old, yet was so idolized as a paragon of birding skill and ornithological knowledge?

TAPIII photos from Dan Lane 019

Ted on a Gulf Island in Chandeleur Sound, Spring 1993 (photo by John O’Neill)

  Ted, as he was known to his family and hundreds of friends, colleagues, and birding acquaintances, became attuned to the natural world at a very early age as he grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Family members tell of Teddy’s remembering bird songs he heard in Ohio from one summer to the next during the annual family vacations to his mother’s home state. This wouldn’t have been so remarkable had he not been only four and five years old at the time. And his scoutmaster said that he never encountered a more patient six- or seven-year-old lad, as measured by Ted’s ability to sit quietly next to a bird feeder for long periods of time waiting for that Red-breasted Nuthatch finally to hop into his hand.

  At age eight Ted knew that he wanted to be an expert on the natural world. He began his butterfly and shell collections before he was ten;  the former is at the North Museum in Lancaster while the latter sits today in his old room at the nearby family home where his mother still lives, beautifully displayed in the custom wooden case his uncle built. Each of the hundreds of shells is neatly labeled with its Latin name.  Many of the specimens were collected from the stomachs of fish his parents had asked fishmongers in town to save for their son so he could dissect them in search of new prizes. When Ted was 11 or 12, he began to give talks on various nature-related topics to his family and to neighbors who were invited up to the attic, where there was a makeshift lecture area with rows of seats.

  Oh, and he loved birds. A brilliant male Scarlet Tanager outside his bedroom window one Spring day left him awestruck, especially when he learned that it was returning all the way from the tropics to breed in Pennsylvania.  So, Ted went to the Lancaster County Bird Club (LCBC) and asked to join. They had never had a twelve-year-old make that request, but agreed that it was okay if his parents didn’t object. Far from it: Ted’s mother would sit in the car for hours reading Dickens while Ted and his younger brother, Blanford (“Blan”), wandered through forest and field seeking birds, butterflies and herps (Blan’s specialty). And their father had always exhorted his sons to immerse themselves fully in subjects of interest rather than squandering their energy engaging topics superficially.

  When Ted joined the LCBC, he was already listening to long-playing records of bird songs, and memorizing his field guide–Latin names and all. It’s true that he liked to show off a bit, and in fact he said that when he realized he could wow “the old ladies” in the club by identifying birds by their sounds alone, he became even more passionate in his pursuit of this seemingly magical ability. He kept meticulous notes on his sightings, and became involved in the Christmas Bird Count. He went on all the club field trips, whether near or far– to birding spots in Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, New England, and of course in his home state.

  While on a field trip at age fifteen he met a fellow Lancastrian, then in his mid-40s, who had recently become addicted to birding–just as Ted was–and that was the beginning of the most nurturing relationship of his young birding life. In order for Ted to be able to pursue new species birds in an ever-expanding radius, he needed a willing driver with a car, preferably someone as driven to find new birds as he was. Harold “Hal” Morrin, a bachelor businessman known for his gentlemanly ways and humility, used to say that he was just Ted’s chauffeur–certainly nothing like a mentor–because Ted’s field skills when they met were already outstripping his own.

  Hal would get off work at 5pm on a Friday, pick up Ted and maybe one or two others from the club and they would cruise down the turnpike on some marathon dash to a new birding locale, with stops only at Bob’s Big Boy (for Ted’s favorite burgers) and at promising-looking birding spots. Ted always planned these weekend forays with target bird species in mind. Mount Monadnock in the Berkshires had breeding Mourning Warblers. There were Greater Prairie Chickens to be seen in Illinois. A palm-swift was coming into a churchyard in South Florida.  Within just a couple of years, Ted and Hal were traveling the United States together, and their life-lists were growing rapidly.

600 Club Membership List, October, 1972, showing Ted Parker’s rank in the top 25 (photo by Gregg Gorton)

600 Club Membership List, October, 1972, showing Ted Parker’s rank in the top 25 (photo by Gregg Gorton)

  Of course, a passion for what is now called “birding” was burgeoning not only in Ted, Hal, and their friends in the bird club, but among a loose community of avian aficionados all over the United States that would coalesce in 1969 into a fledgling organization called the ABA. And the ABA had emerged partly out of a small, but passionate core group of birdwatchers–connected only by chance encounters at rare bird locations and old-fashioned snail mail–called The 600 Club.  Most of the top birders, like Joe Taylor, Arnold Small, Stuart Keith, Harold Axtell, and Paul Sykes–but also the likes of Chandler Robbins, Richard Pough, and Roger Tory Peterson–were members.

  And then, as if out of the blue, a high school kid named Ted Parker stunned the nascent birding world in the U.S. by identifying 626 species in one year in the lower 48 states and southern Canada–smashing through the 600 barrier (Stuart Keith’s old record was 598) in one fell swoop! Yet, when he wrote about the experience (his first publication) in the third volume of Birding, he was matter-of-fact, saying that anyone who systematically went to enough key places could accomplish the same thing, or do even better if they wanted to:  “…I’m not bragging of my accomplishment….  [G]etting a large annual list in such a vast area requires little skill.”

   By the time the article appeared in early 1972, Ted was a freshman in college in Tucson, Arizona, eager to explore further the bird life of that sublime region, but he was also intent on launching a new pursuit: mastering the birds of Mexico. The neotropics, with a much more complex and challenging avifauna, lay in wait for him. But,  birding in tropical forest and jungle is nigh on impossible unless one has some familiarity with the birds’ voices, and at that time in history only some indigenous peoples and some resident ornithologists and collectors had achieved that capability in their local areas. Ted had begun occasionally to tape-record birds in high school, though mostly in order to use taped playback as a lure–as with the Sprague’s Pipit he grabbed by hand out of the air in Texas after calling it in with its own recorded voice; or, with the Colima Warbler he lured into view in Texas during his Big Year. And sometimes to prepare for trips with Hal, he would record from vinyl records onto a tape recorder the voices of those birds he was targeting. In fact, his auditory memory had imprinted the voices of nearly all North American birds by the time he arrived in Tucson, and he was eager for a new challenge.

   Ted and a new clutch of birding companions–including many who were or would go on to become premier birders, writers and editors (Kenn Kaufman, Paul Lehman, Joel Greenberg), ornithologists (Ron Pulliam, Mark Robbins, Andy Mack, Doug Stotz), field biologists (Steve Speich, Carroll Littlefield), or conservation scientists (Tom Bancroft)–went on 22 trips into Mexico between 1971 and 1976.  For Ted, these trips comprised true field research—by no means were they for the purpose of mere touristic bird listing. In order to prepare for these trips, he was devouring the academic literature on the birds of Mexico and Central America when he should have been attending classes, and was accumulating a storehouse of knowledge about bird biogeography and life histories, behavior, and vocalizations.

  Then, in the midst of those adventures, in May of 1974, Ted abruptly joined an ornithological expedition to Peru. Word of his relentless drive to learn everything he could about birds, and of his extraordinary ears and overall field skills, had reached Dr. John O’Neill at Louisiana State University. O’Neill, whose astonishing discoveries of new Peruvian species in the 1960s and ‘70s had initiated a renaissance in neotropical ornithology, needed a willing young bird student unencumbered by other obligations who would be free to remain in Peru to collect bird specimens after his LSU companions had returned to their studies in Baton Rouge. Dr. O’Neill’s old friend, Professor Steve Russell at the University of Arizona, knew just the fellow for the job.

   When he arrived in Peru, Ted’s world opened up in a most exhilarating way, and he was more than ready–with his boundless passion and curiosity, sharp eyes, sharper ears, an otherworldly capacity for trancelike focus in the field, a phenomenal auditory and spatial memory, a sturdy Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder, and even some passable Spanish. To prepare for that very first trip–from May through December, 1974—Ted had memorized the only existing book on the birds of South America, which was based on museum collections (Meyer de Schauensee, 1970) and had only scant black-and-white illustrations to go with its wordy descriptions, and virtually no mention of vocalizations. Ted quickly realized just how much a modern book on the birds of Peru was needed, one that would have color plates and a text based on actual field study. Was it chutzpah, or his always keeping “the big picture” in mind that fueled his conversations about that with Dr. O’Neill during that very first trip? I think it was mostly the latter, as would be shown time and time again in his life. Ted ineluctably drove himself to take on bigger projects and to achieve larger goals, always in the service of accumulating more knowledge about birds and—toward the end, as we shall see–plotting ways to save their habitats.

Ted with John O’Neill , Peruvian Andes,  1974 (unknown photographer; photo courtesy of James Van Remsen)

Ted with John O’Neill , Peruvian Andes, 1974 (unknown photographer; photo courtesy of James Van Remsen)

   In 1977, having finally finished his college degree and already having been on several LSU expeditions, as well as having led a couple of the earliest birding tours to Peru, Ted promised Jim Gulledge, the curator of the Library of Natural Sound (LNS; now called The Macaulay Library) of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that if the LNS would give him full technical support, Ted would make it into the world’s premier archive for neotropical bird recordings. Yes, Ted always set the bar very high, and then strove to reach and exceed it, though–over the course of his life–not without his family’s and wives’/fiancee’s immense support, along with aid and encouragement from a cadre of colleagues, friends, admirers, support staff from LSU, Victor Emmanuel Nature Tours, many museums, Conservation International, and on and on–all eager to help this charismatic man who shared his immense knowledge and fecund ideas with one and all.

   From his earliest days in Peru, he compulsively tape-recorded every species of bird he encountered, many hundreds of them for the first time ever, and many whose voices (say, from high in the canopy) had been previously unconnected to their visual field features (say, caught in a mist net). Audio recording technology was advancing rapidly, and with support from LNS, an heir to the Tabasco company fortune, and the LSU Museum, Ted was able to equip himself with cutting-edge recorders and microphones. He lugged a huge, reel-to-reel Nagra machine around for many years and made most of his finest recordings with it. The result was nearly 11,000 recordings of more than 2,000 species of birds, frogs, and mammals. Many of these recordings were also “vouchered” with stuffed specimens of the bird that had been caught vocalizing, which was essential for scientific advancement of taxonomy.

Ted at Explorers’ Inn in Peru with Nagra recorder and Dan Gibson parabolic microphone,  January 13, 1978 (photo by Paul Donahue)

Ted at Explorers’ Inn in Peru with Nagra recorder and Dan Gibson parabolic microphone, January 13, 1978 (photo by Paul Donahue)

   As a result of this arduous, painstaking work, which required thousands of hours in the field, beginning every day long before sunrise so he could hike in the darkness and get into position to record the dawn chorus, Ted became known in neotropical birding and ornithological circle as “the guy who knows all the birds’ songs.” That was precisely the way he was first described to the venerable Juergen Haffer, for example, the pioneering biogeographer who first posited glaciation as a primary engine of neotropical bird speciation. These two men from different generations met at Manaus ’90, a landmark gathering of many of the foremost neotropical experts who assembled in the Amazon to identify hotspots of biodiversity so resources might be galvanized to preserve them. Nigel Collar, of IUCN (now BirdLife International), wrote later about the conference: “If Haffer was the godfather of the meeting… Ted was the favorite son….”

     By that time, Ted had become tired and frustrated with having to rely on bird tour guiding to be able to do his field work. LSU research expeditions rarely occurred more than annually. He had been musing about how to bootstrap his field skills and vast knowledge of neotropical birds into a paying job that would allow him to focus on studying and conserving the remarkable places he and his colleagues were watching disappear literally before their eyes while leading tours or doing field research. Even though Ted had already discovered some new bird species and had had several new species and a sub-species named after him, and had become internationally famous within ornithology, he had no salaried academic position. He was paying a price, literally, for having opted not to pursue graduate education so he could devote himself to his beloved field work.

Ted on tour with the great birder Phoebe Snetsinger at La Selva, Costa Rica, 1983 (photo by Mary Beth Stowe)

Ted on tour with the great birder Phoebe Snetsinger at La Selva, Costa Rica, 1983 (photo by Mary Beth Stowe)

   But a felicitous encounter beside a campfire in Venezuela in 1988 had already pointed a possible pathway forward. The lifelong birder and Nobel Prize winner, physicist Murray Gell-Mann, was also very concerned about threats to tropical habitats, as were many others at that time. But Murray had an ace up his sleeve: he was a member of the Board of Conservation Programs of the MacArthur Foundation who just happened to hop aboard a bird tour with “that Parker guy who gets more birds than anybody else.” After the other clients had bedded down, Ted told Murray of an idea he had been incubating:  he wanted to assemble a small team of the best field biologists who could efficiently (say, in less than a month) survey what might still be a pristine area, quickly collate and publish the resultant data, and make those and summary recommendations available to local and national stakeholders in order to kick-start an expeditious preservation effort. Gell-Mann himself had envisaged something very much like that, and after tossing the idea back and forth, the usually garrulous Gell-Mann said laconically, “I think I can help you.”

    With surprising alacrity, the MacArthur Foundation had granted nearly three-quarters of a million dollars to a new organization called Conservation International, and Ted was hired to lead what was to be called the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) team. He invited his old friend Al Gentry, the foremost neotropical botanist, along with Louise Emmons, an eminent field mammalogist, and Robin Foster, a seasoned and well-known botanist and landscape ecologist, to join him.  As a result of their work at the team’s initial study site (in Bolivia), Alto Madidi National Park—then the world’s second largest (New Jersey-sized)–was established. So, this new paradigm born of a marriage of “quick and dirty” field research and a strategic conservation initiative, could indeed bear fruit—just as Ted and Murray, along with Peter Seligman and Russ Mittermeier of Conservation International, and many other crucial facilitators, had hoped.

Ted and Al Gentry in a helicopter, ?Country, ?year (photo by Kim Awbrey)

Ted and Al Gentry in a helicopter, ?Country, ?year (photo by Kim Awbrey)

    In short, that is how only a few years later a single-engine Cessna carrying seven people would come to beeline northwest from Guayaquil but then become lost and crash to earth. On that day, the RAP team had just completed its seventh expedition, this time to the Cordillera del Co’ndor on the border of Peru and Ecuador. Ted, Al, and Ted’s fiancée, Jaqueline Goerck, were exhausted when they arrived by Land Rover in Guayaquil that afternoon.  But they could not turn down Eduardo Aspiazu’s entreaty—to have them hop in a plane he had waiting for them, and embark on a quick over-flight of coastal mountain habitats he was desperately hoping could be saved before deforestation might seal their fate….

    Three of the passengers did survive the ensuing accident:  Jaqueline Goerck (now a prominent ornithologist in Brazil and Director of Save Brasil), Alfredo Luna (a field biologist who has been unable to work since the accident,  but is very involved in the indigenous rights movement in Ecuador), and Carmen Bonifaz de Elao (a professor of botany at University of Guayaquil)–but for their stories we must wait for another time.

canopy gap opened up by the ill-fated aircraft carrying Ted Parker and colleagues (photo courtesy of Alfredo Luna **)

Canopy gap opened up by the ill-fated aircraft carrying Ted Parker and colleagues (photo courtesy of Alfredo Luna **)

plaque placed by Carol Walton at the crash site on February 14, 1995  (photo by Carol Walton)

Plaque placed by Carol Walton at the crash site on February 14, 1995 (photo by Carol Walton)

      So, the legacy of this bird-nerdy kid who became one of the greatest field ornithologists and then an internationally renowned conservationist, and who spent fully ten years of the last half of his life exploring the southerly American latitudes, lives on.  In addition to his indefatigable zeal and relentless hard work, what allowed him to be so successful were his auditory magic, a prodigious memory, and endearing charisma. The fact that two memorial Festschrift volumes (totaling over 1,200 pages) were published in his honor on two continents speaks to the remarkable impact of his life, his work, and his vision. As a result, and because of the efforts of so many with whom he collaborated, and whom he influenced, there’s a bit more of a chance that some remarkable habitats may yet be saved, and the people who live in those places may then be in a position to shepherd their earthly inheritance not only for their own good but for the benefit of all humanity.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]