Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who was Tom Davis ...

... and why is he honored with a shorebird walk at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge?

Every year in mid-August the Linnaean Society of New York hosts the "Annual Tom Davis Shorebird Walk". The walk is this Saturday and I thought I'd use the opportunity to dedicate a post to this legendary New York birder.

I never met Tom as he passed away before I began birding. I was motivated to post about him, not only because of the annual walk, but also because I'd heard so many stories about him from some of the longtime NYC birders. I've posted about Tom in the past here, here and here.

Tom, like many birders, was passionate about his hobby. Unlike most of us, though, his chosen area of concentration is one of the most difficult - shorebirds. A few years ago I asked the New York birding community to send me their memories of him. I've compiled them below. Peter Post also sent a couple of photos:

From Sean Sime:

I had never met Tom either, though I feel a very strong connection to him. My mentor, Joe DiCostanzo was mentored by Tom Davis. In my early years birding, following Joe around Central Park and beyond, while trying to glean whatever knowledge I could I heard many stories about Tom and his birding conquests. Many seemed barely believable and certainly certifiable!


Over the years I began to realize many of the things I truly respected about Joe were passed down from Tom. The care in identification, the desire to try like hell to turn a rarity into a common bird (and not the other way around), the willingness to take the time to get others on birds, these were all common threads passed from Tom to Joe. Although I will never claim to stand toe to toe with either of them as birders I do feel a great sense of responsibility to honor the heritage, so to speak. This is why I volunteer to lead the Tom Davis Memorial each year.


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From Richard ZainEldeen:



[Tom] was a very tall, very thin guy (about 6' 7", I think.) When he wanted to move on those long legs it was hard to catch up with him! He knew a lot about our native birds in general, but shorebirds were, of course, his true specialty. I can remember one time, having spotted a Sanderling (I think) at Jamaica Bay, he was able to state that this particular individual had been born in Greenland, judging by certain subleties in plumage!



I rather think that Tom was rather a free spirited sort of person. He had this great passion for the feathered creatures; he told me once that he chose his job (as telephone repairman at AT&T, I think) as it allowed him to be more free to pursue his hobby.



I was with him on the Linnaean Society's 1978 field trip to Manitoba. Several vivid memories come to mind:



In search of the Sharp-tailed Grouse in Southern Manitoba, I remember him moving far ahead of the rest of us while going across a field, and scaring up a flock. When the rest of us huffed and puffed up, he was lying on the ground smoking a cigarette, with a contented smile on his face.



And--who could forget slogging through an icy cold marsh in the middle of the night looking for Yellow Rails? Tom decided to stay later, after the rail had been seen by the group and everyone had left but his car. I was able to remain with him in the marsh, even though the mosquitoes were fierce. We didn't have any additional sightings of the Yellow Rail, but it certainly was an an interesting experience, culminating in his sharing a bag of chips. Tom, I think, liked crunchy carbohydrates. As a matter of fact, when I last saw him in the hospital, he was in the lounge smoking a cigarette and eating a bag of potato chips.



Finally, another memory was at Churchill itself. Tom, of course, took many photographs, and executed a dangerous walk over an series of beached ice blocks to take a picture of Ross's Gull (maybe it was the Sabine's Gull.) Being a focused person he may have been unaware of the danger, but Tom Burke called out to him to come back and he eventually did, unharmed.



Even after he had the first of a series of strokes, where he was unable to walk, he managed to get out to Jamaica Bay to see the Rufous-necked Stint. I recall his being carried away from the Raunt on a stretcher by a few of his friends, looking happy to have been able to see this rarity.

There were many people who knew Tom far better than I. But one thing I do believe-- Tom did not go in for pretensions; you knew where you stood with him from the beginning.


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From Bob Gochfeld:



I first met Tom some time in the 1960s (not sure exactly when) and shared with him the experience of two memorable tropical trips, Costa Rica and Panama in May 1969 (20 days) and Panama in April 1971 (10 days), before eco tourism and before there were modern field guides for either place.



Tom choreographed the arrangements for the Costa Rica trip. In those days, there was only one monopolistic telephone company with very few options available. Tom worked for the telephone company at the switching station, so he set up the conference call (otherwise unavailable to mere mortals) between several people in New York and Fred Heath in California.



I have already written one anecdote for the "Clapper Rail" describing Tom's attempt to snatch a Black Tern out of the air on the Panamerican Highway in Costa Rica.



At one town in southern Costa Rica, after dinner, the three youngest of the six of us, Tom, Fred Heath and I decided to join a local pick-up basketball game. I'm short and of no basketball significance. Fred Heath stood about six feet tall, but Tom at 6 foot 8 was considered someone to contend with, so the locals gave the three of us their best player and we played four against seven. The other team slaughtered us, much to the annoyance of their best player, for while Tom was extremely tall .... Homer Simpson is a better basketball player. He had apparently been the bench warming spare part on his college basketball team with a total playing time of about a minute.



At one juncture, while headquartered at the "Hotel Boston" (not one of your finer establishments) in San Jose, several of us decided to go for a walk to see what the local marqueta was like. Seemingly within seconds after hitting the sidewalk, Tom had a string of adult men and children following him around pointing and grinning at "el gigante." Tom adored the celebrity.



In Costa Rica we found Yellow-Eared Toucanet. In doing a post mortem on the trip, Tom insisted on adding a category "sexiest bird". Yellow-Eared Toucanet won over Resplendent Quetzal (three people only got to see a female of the latter). Tom was so enamoured of the bird that he got a vanity license plate for his car "Toucanet".



On our first morning in Costa Rica, after renting a Toyota land cruiser for the six of us (my brother Mike, Guy Tudor and Michel Kleinbaum being the other three), we drove up to the top of Volcan Poas (about 9000 feet as I recall). Through the fog at the top we kept hearing this unusual call. We parked the vehicle and took off into the woods to find the bird. Eventually, Tom located it and showed me my first Resplendent Quetzal (the female). There had recently been a magazine article (in Natural History?) about how a naturalist had searched for almost a month before he found his first Quetzal. We had ours the first morning.



Tom's height and the land cruiser were not a good match. He sat in the back on the side-facing bench seats and with every bump, his head would slam into the ceiling. Finally, he gave up and took to riding outside the vehicle perched precariously on the right-hand running board while holding on to the sideview mirror assembly.



On the Costa Rican trip (no one else seems to remember this) Tom looked up a nonagenarian who had been a collector for one of the early twentieth century tropical ornithologists and who was still living in San Jose. The elderly gentleman joined us for coffee and suggested to us places to bird (I believe that he was the one who suggested the Quaker Village at Montaverde - which we never got to).



Tom could be a very patient teacher and spotter, often waiting for someone to see something he had found but he could also be an annoyance because he would sometimes charge off into the woods ahead of everyone else with his enormous stride and flush all the birds before we got to see them. Then he would return and tactlessly tell us the wondrous things that he had seen.



As I recall, before Tom Burke was the voice of the New York City RBA tape, Tom Davis was the voice.

Tom was a frequent contributor to the Linnaean Newsletter and was, I believe, its editor for some time. Part of his legacy can be found in articles and notes that he wrote for the newsletter.



Bob


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From Eric Salzman:



I have two stories about Tom. One concerns his role as editor of the Linnaean Newsletter and a letter I wrote about a dead "confusing fall warbler." I had taken it to the Quogue Wildlife Refuge for identification when it suddenly sprang back to life, dove down to the ground and into a cage where it was was promptly eaten by the resident skunk. The recipient of this tragic tale sent the letter to Tom who wanted to print it in the newsletter and called me on the phone to get permission. Sure I said, just give me a subscription to your newsletter. "It's not that simple," said Tom. Two months later he called me again to inform me that I had been elected to the Linnaean Society. Oh yes, he also printed the story.



My other Tom story is short. It was in the middle of a hurricane and I was standing on the old Ponquogue Bridge, a low causeway across Shinnecock Bay from which one could see hundreds of Wilson's Storm Petrels up close. "Look at that one over there," said a voice at my elbow. "It's Leach's [Storm Petrel]!" Indeed it was. And indeed it was Tom Davis. How did he (and in that pre-Internet age) find his way out east to the very spot where Leach's Storm Petrel was about to appear? Only Tom could manage that trick.



Eric


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Finally, John Askildsen sent me this great email:

My memories of Tom go back to when I was in my teens. The New York birding community was quite small then, relative to what it is today. Of course everyone knew Tom and of his tremendous birding skills. He was the voice of the New York City Rare Bird Alerts, and really in some ways, the voice of the entire birding community in the NYC area.

I had the opportunity to go birding together with Tom Davis and Tom Burke on several occasions when I was in my formative years. As a young birder, I viewed these experiences as very special ones. Being in the presence of, and learning from Tom Davis, Tom Burke, Barbara Spencer, Tony Lauro and Paul Buckley, among others, enriched my birding experience greatly and fostered within me what is today my great passion and love of birds and bird observation.

As others on this blog have pointed out, Tom worked for New York Telephone Co. as a Central Office Technician. While working in the C.O. mainframe, Tom contacted his birding colleagues across the country in order to see what was around at that very moment, all courtesy of NY Tel. He also set up conference calls among birders, to plan last minute rare bird car chases. Besides Tom Davis, I think conference calls in those days were only reserved for corporate leaders and U.S. Presidents! In addition, back in those days before the advent of the Internet, cell phones, blackberries, PDAs, etc., getting up to the minute bird info like this was worth its weight in gold. The only way information was broadcast was via Rare Bird Alert recordings. It was all great fun.

Tom was also a great kidder. Below are a few of the goodies:

I remember one time when a woman brought in an ailing, chemical-coated Ring-billed Gull, to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge headquarters. With great concern and compassion on her face, the woman asked us what could be done for the poor thing. Tom responded by telling the woman that the best thing to do for it was to mix two eggs with some herbs and a dash of table salt in a large bowl, placing the gull into the mixture for a couple of hours, letting the bird really soak in the mix. Tom went on further to say to the woman, who was now carefully listening and taking notes, to then remove the bird from the mix and place it in a shallow pan, placing it into a 325 degree oven for about an hour. The woman was mortified. We were hysterical.

If I recall correctly, there were two back-to-back years of Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Jamaica Bay in the late 70's or early 80's. Tom either found, or at least saw both birds. The first bird he wrote up quite nicely for NYSARC and it was accepted into the records. It may have been a first state record. Tom's second report he wrote for the following year's Sharp-tail record went something like "Same as the last bird, one year later". Tom’s report was canned! He was big, but not bigger than NYSARC!

On one of those famous Federation pelagics in the 1970's, I recall it was really hot and everyone was sick and spread out on the boat. The seas were flat and there were few birds to be found. There was a woman sitting next to me who had a sage-green complexion the entire day. She could not drink or eat anything. At one point, having perked up a bit, she decided to eat a bit of lunch. At that very moment, I remember Tom began yelling SKUA, SKUA! He raced to the edge of the boat where a South Polar Skua was working its way towards us. With his camera in hand, Tom grabbed the woman’s tuna sandwich practically right out of her hand and winged it out at the skua. That was my life and more importantly, first NYS South Polar Skua. I think that somewhere in the NYSARC archives there is a picture of a skua chomping down on that tuna sandwich.

Shortly before Tom was struck down by a cerebral hemorrhage, I believe he had just recently returned from Venezuela. He phoned me regarding some shorebird records for Jamaica Bay and we talked about his trip. I remember him saying to me that if I did anything, before I go birding across the U.S., I really should bird the American tropics first, as they were going fast and so was its birdlife. He described to me in detail, the seemingly unimaginable birds he saw down there. I never forgot that conversation and I recalled it on my first trip to the neotropics some years ago.

In his final years, I recall that sadly, Tom started to give up on the constant struggle that was his new life. It was no longer enjoyable for him, not being able to stalk shorebirds, with his camera in hand, in the marshes of the bay he loved so much or not being able to enjoy the camaraderie of his birding friends along side of him. Out of necessity, Tom spent many of his final days in a nursing home somewhere in the Rockaways. I cannot imagine what it was like for him to look out over the marshes that were once his home, that he knew were no longer within his reach, forever.

Tom Davis was a talented person with a passion for life and the natural world. When Tom left us, there was a large void in the birding community that could not be filled and really never has been to this day. This void was really felt by everyone at the time. Trips to Jamaica Bay were very different for everyone after Tom's passing. And while I did not know Tom as well as Tom Burke, Tony Lauro and others did, I too felt the loss and do so today. As I wandered through the new visitor's center at "the Bay" two weeks ago, my mind wandered to Tom as I thought about what he might say about it.

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