So long, Rich

Rich Stallcup, as he appeared about the time I first met him in the 1970s. Photo by Van Remsen.
From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: This past Saturday, December 15, was the annual Christmas Bird Count at Point Reyes, California. One of the largest CBCs in North America, Point Reyes regularly fields around 200 observers and records around 200 species, a testament to the fabulous birding culture of Marin County.  This year, for the first time in many years, one observer was conspicuously absent: the legendary Rich Stallcup, beloved leader of the Marin birding community for the last half-century. Rich had been battling illness for many months.  As the bird counters gathered for their compilation Saturday evening, he slipped away across the horizon.  

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.  


  1. Kenn, So sorry to hear that you have lost a good friend. He sounded like a wonderful guy and I would have loved to have met him.


  2. Beautifully written. Your sketching of his words and personality make me feel the loss of someone I never met.

  3. A wonderful tribute, Kenn. Thank you for sharing him with us.
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.


  4. Thank you for writing so beautifully about Rich. I will miss running into him here in Marin County, leading a line of people loaded with binocs and scopes and field guides. I will miss his elfin humor. He taught me to keep watching the bird until it flies off. I see so much more when I look longer.

    Nancy Hanson

  5. Thank you for this insightful, cheering tribute. I am relatively new in the birding community, and only spent time with Rich on three occasions, yet I have felt deeply moved over and over since Sunday evening when I learned about his death.

  6. I live in Novato and was lucky enough to know Rich in his last 5 years. As soon as I heard of his passing, I dedicated the CBC that I'm the compiler for, Cheep Thrills, to Rich. The circle includes Novato, where Rich lived. Last year he helped us restart it and served as an area leader (in his neighborhood and surrounding areas) and master of ceremonies at the compilation dinner. You can imagine what a master he was!

    We held it on Thursday, 12/20. I've posted a report about this on the North Bay Birds Yahoo group and if you'd like me to forward a copy please send me an email at this address:

    To help all of you who are missing him so much, Rich left us some poetry. We read two of them at the compilation dinner Thursday night. This one, written in 1977 with a co-author, is about a butterfly, and liberation. It appeared in the journal "Raven, Poems from Naturalists in support of Mono Lake." I hope it comforts you, and everyone who reads it.

    Mariposa, mariposa how I love you
    Your wings reflect the rainbows of the sun
    I'll be with you mariposa in the high sky
    When the flowers of the foothills
    have turned brown

    The breeze that brought you to my eyes
    Is breath of both our mother
    For you sweet dainty butterfly
    are oh so sure my brother

    I remember we were children of the lupine
    I remember hearing rain on our cocoon
    We spread new wings
    For spring and April sunshine
    We'll fly together
    brightly always soon

    The stars that guide you home to breed
    light the path of our first cousins
    Between the shadows narrowly
    Mariposa de los noches

    Mariposa, mariposa how I love you
    Your wings reflect the rainbows of the sun
    I'll be with mariposa in the high sky
    When the flowers of the foothills have turned brown

    Mariposa de los noches...... comin' home.

    We mourn for ourselves, desperately wanting him back. Rich is free.

    Susan Kelly
    Compiler, Rich Stallcup's Cheep Thrills CBC

    (Kenn and Kimberly, we met at that wonderful week at Hog Island two years ago, when I attended the Field Ornithologist week with my friend Anne, and again at the Winter Wings festival earlier this year.)

  7. Kenn, thank you for sharing your experiences with Rich in your book and this blog. Many of us were not lucky enough to meet Rich in real life, but were able to experience his wisdom, in part, through you.

    I was personally touched by his "list quote" in Kingbird Highway and have since "re-quoted" it to several others. Like you, I have found it inspirational and profoundly truthful - not only in birding but in life as well. Although I have never met Rich, he has made my life better... via Kenn Kaufman's writings!

    I know it doesn't really need to be said, but I just wanted to point out what a wonderful service you've done for Rich Stallcup, and for birders in general, to be the bridge between us and a truly great man. Thank you, Kenn.

    -Kirk Roth

  8. My sympathies for the loss of your friend. Like many, I 'met' Rich in your book Kingbird Highway, and felt like he was somehow a friend of mine, too. You've introduced many kindred spirits to each other, whether they know it or not. Or should I say, "Kenndred"? :)

    Marcheta *kindred spirit

  9. Great tribute and I have to say I do like his perspective on the bird counting game.

  10. Thank you for your poetic and spiritual tribute to Rich Stallcup. I think you captured his gifts perfectly. I was thinking of him just now as I choked up watching a magnificent little slate colored junco making a happy mess in a bird feeder captured by a Cornell birdcam in Ontario, Canada. Rich would have totally understood the sacred relationship I feel to birds. Once when trudging around Abbott's Lagoon and finally making it over the dunes, upon the first sighting of the Pacific Ocean (it was a rare, clear, blue-sky day at Pt. Reyes) I threw up my hands, fell on my knees (in the sand of course) and said, "thank you God." In a fit of embarrassment I looked at Rich who was standing right next to me. Instead of smirking he smiled and nodded his head very slowly....Yes he said.

    Another memory: standing under an owl roost tree on one of his legendary Wednesday Pt. Reyes Bird Walks, Rich picked apart a bunch of owl pellets and completely reconstructed the skeleton of a vole. It sat in his outstretched palm for all of us to see.

    Francis of Assisi and Rich Stallcup understood the way nature connects us to the Divine and all life, with love, compassion and awe.

    I miss him so much.


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