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A Swan Has Sung, Remembering Rich Stallcup

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By Harry Fuller, on 25 Dec., 2012 (This article first appeared on Harry’s Towheeblog)

For anybody who’s birded in the Bay Area in the past 50 years, there has always been one human name that was respected, even beloved. Rich Stallcup. Sadly he just died from leukemia. Among his many achievements was co-founding of the Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory some 48 years ago. Rich was as much bird as man, having dropped out of school at 14 to go birding. He never went back to school and he never stopped studying birds.

For those of us who had the joy and wonder of watching Rich in the field it was unforgettable. Sharp of eye and ear, softly smiling, tireless in explaining to those of us who could see only part of the picture.

I love to tell of the time I showed up for one of his field trips at Five Brooks near Pt. Reyes. Standing in the parking lot I watched him drive up, open the trunk of his jalopy, stick his head in to arrange his gear and begin calling off birds from their chips notes. Rich had 14 species, with his head in the trunk, never once glancing up.

At one time his beat-up vehicle sported a bumper sticker that read, “Let the buffalo roam, whistle back the swan.”

If only there was a way to whistle back the swan-like soul of Rich Stallcup.

One of his famous dicta: “Sure you’ve seen lots of Robins, but have you ever seen THAT Robin?”

Every living thing from grass to Grasshopper Sparrow was imbued with vitality and complexity when you got to share the vision with Rich Stallcup.

Rich’s quiet demeanor, gentle knowledge and keen love for all things wild and natural was infectious. His deep knowledge of American birds was a resource every other birder valued. When there was some disagreement over a difficult identification of some rare or puzzling bird, the ultimate, accepted judgement would hinge on, “What does Richie think?”

Dick Ashford is a friend of mine and President of the Klamath Bird Observatory, one of many institutions inspired by PRBO, one of Richie’s great contributions to bird science. Here is how Dick remembers his friend, Rich Stallcup: “I (we) lost a dear friend over the weekend. Rich Stallcup was my longtime friend and mentor, my guide into the “field of wonder” (Rich’s term for the natural world). For years, I have begun my talks with one of his quotations, “There are no experts, no masters, just students. It is as it should be”. When I called Rich to ask his permission to use it, he choked up. I am choked up as I write this. I have wonderful stories to share, and memories to keep…”

Below is an apt tribute written by Jon Winter, another wonderful birder who taught the first bird class I ever took. That would have been 1978, a night course at College of Marin.

“Rich has the soul of a poet, the mind of a scientist, and the spirituality of a shaman. This is not a combination of talents often found in a birder. If Rich hasn’t seen the vision, he sure as hell knows where to look for it while the rest of us mortals are stumbling around trying to find out what the hell it is all about. You always felt like a contact hitter when birding with Rich. You always knew at any moment he could put one out of the park. I suspect that it is the same feeling professional athletes get when they are in the same game with a Barry Bonds, a Jerry Rice, or a Michael Jordan. You know that you are in the presence of someone extraordinary; someone that has an ability that completely transcends that of an ordinary player. Rich’s influence goes well beyond just identifying birds, he has become a part of the flow of life itself, part of the essence of what animates the natural world, and he understands that world from that very unique perspective. Placed in that context, the ability to identify birds isn’t really very important, it is all rather clinical. To those who have been fortunate enough to know him, Rich leads you to a higher purpose through birding; an understanding of your spirit.”

Here’s one more memory of Rich, the consummate birder and teacher, from Doug Shaw of Santa Rosa, CA: “I remember some years back I ran into Rich with a small group of about 6 birders at Point Reyes walking back to the parking lot from the lighthouse during Fall Migration. A couple of us asked him Anything Good? and got the Rich stare. He kindly responded, “all birds are good,” which gave us a different outlook on the chasing aspect of birding. I have remembered that quote many times over the years. Also, if another birder reported some thing out at the point that was misidentified he was always very respectful and would kindly educate you rather than criticize you.”