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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jamaica Bay shorebird walk

Sean Sime lead a group of birders on a shorebird field trip at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. Sponsored by the Linnaean Society of New York, the field trip was listed as the “14th Annual Tom Davis Memorial Shorebird Walk". I’ve referred to Tom Davis with regard to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in the past, unfortunately, he passed away before I began birding, so I don’t have any first hand experience with the man and legend.

This posting was going to be one of my fairly typical nature reports, but I changed my mind in midstream. It began when I started searching the Internet for any information about Tom Davis. It’s a pretty common name, so I added words like ”shorebirds“ and ”New York City“ to the search keywords. There was lots of information on politicians, comedians and, coincidentally, another birder named Tom Davis, but nothing about the individual who touched so many people’s lives.

I’ve heard dozens of stories about Tom and his passion for birds and teaching others, but none of them exist in writing. If it’s alright, I’d like to devote this blog entry to information about Tom. Take a few minutes (or as long as you’d like) and add an anecdote or other bit of information about him in the comments section of this post. In recognition of his contributions to New York City birding, as well as, the southbound passage of shorebirds, I thought it would be fitting to have that information written down and shared.

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, 8/18/2007:

Double-crested Cormorant
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Snowy Egret
Green Heron
Black-crowned Night-Heron
Glossy Ibis
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal
Peregrine Falcon
Black-bellied Plover
Semipalmated Plover
American Oystercatcher
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Spotted Sandpiper
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Western Sandpiper
Least Sandpiper
White-rumped Sandpiper
Pectoral Sandpiper
Stilt Sandpiper
Short-billed Dowitcher
Laughing Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Tern
Forster's Tern
Least Tern
Chimney Swift
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Carolina Wren
Gray Catbird
Cedar Waxwing
Yellow Warbler
Northern Waterthrush (2.)

Other common species seen (or heard):
Canada Goose, Mute Swan, American Black Duck, Mallard, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, American Crow, American Robin, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, American Goldfinch, House Sparrow


Rob Jett said...

Tell me something about Tom.


Sean Sime said...

I have never met Tom either, though I feel a very strong conection 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.

Rob Jett said...

Many people opted to send their comments to me directly, as they didn't have a Google account (or want one). Here is the first email that I received:

From Richard ZainEldeen:


He 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' 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 pretentions; you knew where you stood with him from the begining.

Rob Jett said...

This comment is 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 Resplendant 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 Resplendant 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.


Rob Jett said...

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!" 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.


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