|Rich Stallcup, as he appeared about the time I first met him in the 1970s. Photo by Van Remsen.|
To say that Rich Stallcup had a massive influence on birding and natural history in the great state of California would be a huge understatement. Everyone knew him, everyone had learned from him. But his influence spread far, far beyond the boundaries of California. I was lucky enough to meet him when I was still a teenager, and to spend quite a bit of time with him over the following 15 years, and his impact on me was immeasurable.
When we first met in the 1970s, I was 18 years old, on my first hitch-hiking trip to California. Rich was only about a decade older than me, but he was already recognized as one of the top birders on the continent. I was ignorant and inexperienced, but he never made me feel stupid. A natural teacher, he invited me along on field trips with him and his friends, sharing knowledge freely, as he did with thousands of others. And he shared a key idea, too. When we met, he was going all-out to do a Big Year for the state of California. I was considering doing my own Big Year later, with all of North America as my target area. When I asked him about his year list attempt, he told me, "The list total isn't important, but the birds themselves are important. Every bird you see. So the list is just a frivolous incentive for birding, but the birding itself is worthwhile. It's like a trip where the destination doesn't have any significance except for the fact that it makes you travel. The journey is what counts." That statement affected me so profoundly that I wrote it down in my field notebook that night, and later when I did my own Big Year and wrote a book about it (Kingbird Highway), I quoted it verbatim. Decades later, that still strikes me as the perfect perspective on bird-listing games.
In the following years I had many chances to go birding with Rich Stallcup, and we even led several tours together in Arizona and Mexico. I was constantly learning from him. Although his knowledge was extraordinary, for me his knowledge was overshadowed by his wisdom. And, yes, I use that term intentionally. He truly was wise in his approach to birds, nature, and people. Endlessly reveling in the joy of nature, endlessly patient and generous with beginners, he inspired everyone to greater awareness and kindness.
I recall one time when we were staying at a hotel in Arizona, and members of our group were nervous because a sinister-looking character was hanging around the parking lot. Rich said, "There is no need to worry" - in a singsong voice, as if he were not just commenting on the moment, but repeating a basic philosophy of life, as perhaps he was. Striding out into the parking lot, confident and friendly as you please, Rich struck up a conversation with the sinister character. Of course the man turned out not to be sinister at all, and for half an hour the two were talking like old buddies.
Another time, in California, several of us were watching an American Redstart that was flitting about in some willows. Redstarts are somewhat uncommon in California, but not extremely rare. After a few minutes, everyone had lowered their binoculars - everyone except Rich, who was still watching the bird. "Come on, Rich," said one of his friends. "You've seen redstarts before."
"Yes," said Rich, agreeably. "But I hadn't seen this one."
I know these stories sound like small things. Taken individually, they are. But similar things happened over and over, many times per day, whenever Rich was around. Layer on layer, these little examples built up into powerful lessons about life as a joyful adventure, nature as a grand treasure. And these lessons were passed on, directly and indirectly, to vast numbers of people throughout Rich's active life.
I didn't hear about Rich Stallcup's passing until almost 24 hours after the fact, and I learned of it when I came in from our own local Christmas Bird Count here in Ohio. My old friend Keith Hansen, a great bird artist and practically a neighbor of Rich's in Marin County, called to give me the news. We were both choked up at first; but within ten minutes on the phone we were chuckling, even laughing, as we shared stories of adventures with Rich. And I think that is fitting. All over California, all over the world, thousands of people are undoubtedly having the same experience right now, sharing stories and smiling at memories of a man who lived so passionately and gave so much.