It was a miserable January morning in Sausalito. Rain was thundering on the roof at Mario's Breakfast-and-Bait at the end of the pier. The northwest wind was so strong that all the boats moored to the old wooden dock were listing to the southeast. Fifteen members of my Bird School class already assembled at this meeting place were probably thinking we were in for an awful day.
I hadn't told them we would have a surprise guest, but when I walked in with Roger Tory Peterson, long faces got short. It was like the pope had just appeared in his window. . . there was shameless reverence.
As I introduced him, my usually faithful friends did not hear what I was saying, and they looked right through me. They were bedazzled by pure celebrity.
Ten minutes later, when the "oh-my-Gods" and "will-you-please-autograph-my-field- guides" had quieted, we began to peer outside. Though it hadn't seemed possible, the weather was worse. We would not be going on the bay boat as planned. In response to someone asking, "What are we going to do?", Roger said, "Let's get out of here and find some birds."
He was like that! The world's most accomplished field ornithologist and environmental educator, still filled with the wonder and enthusiasm of a little kid looking for frogs. After a couple of carefully placed phone calls and a short drive to San Francisco, we ended up not in the mud but in the skin collection of the California Academy of Sciences, pouring over trays of dead birds. RTP asked as many questions as I did, and the others kept pace. It was a good time. Lots of questions; lots of laughter; and lots of learning. Time flew by.
When I dropped Dr. Peterson at his motel in Inverness, it was like dropping off any other friend... "See you tomorrow. " On my drive home it occurred to me, and I'm sure Roger would have agreed, that "there are no masters among us - only students: things are as they should be."
Now, though, almost 20 years later, I think differently of Roger Tory Peterson. Thanks, master... see you tomorrow.
Courtesy of Virginia Peterson
Driving down the road my head automatically turns on a feathered flash, a habit I picked up years ago in my first field biology class. That science training generated a lifelong hobby for me, one now shared by many others. Birding, in fact, is one of the fastest growing sports today.
Recognizing the popularity of birding, we must pay special tribute to the man who, in large part, made it happen, Roger Tory Peterson. Through the creation of pocket-sized field guides and a system for identifying birds - grouping similar species and highlighting their distinguishing characteristics (often using arrows on his illustrations to single out identifying features) - Roger Tory Peterson started a minor revolution. Field ornithology no longer required a shotgun. Good eyes, binoculars, and A Field Guide to the Birds were all that was needed. Today, many important studies of avian diversity and abundance rely on recognizing those same visual cues.
Combining his practical ornithological knowledge and his abilities as a painter, Roger Tory Peterson fashioned a key to the wonders of the natural world. When he brought birding to the public, Peterson helped create a sense of appreciation in many people who had no science training. To the growing number of people crowding into our cities and suburbs, his guides have helped illuminate the workings of ecosystems. By watching for birds, we learn about habitats, the food web, and interdependence. And we learn that the loss of these feathered jewels diminishes the beauty and health of our own world.
With the passing of Roger Tory Peterson, we have lost a truly inspired person. Fortunately, in the legions of amateur ornithologists and birders, the revolution he started lives on.
Field guide plate courtesy of Houghton Miffin