was no spark bird. Honestly, I can’t remember not looking at birds. Early on, I
was always lugging massive porro prism binoculars, my dad’s old issue from the
U.S. Air Force. They were enormous and carried me through college, after which
they met their unfortunate end when they tumbled out of my backpack on the Lost
Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park. That was the first set of optics that
gave all in the service of my passion; read on for details of the second.
was the middle of three boys in Dallas, Texas. We grew up outside, narrowly
missing a video game upbringing. We loved to go creek-walking and often had a
menagerie of domestic and wild-caught pets around the house. I got a bird
feeder kit that my dad and I built and stocked with seed. I would spend hours
watching out the window from the top of my bunk bed as birds came and went. The
prize was always a male Northern Cardinal. This activity prompted my maternal
grandparents to give me the Golden Guide for Christmas in 1980. I still
remember hefting the gift-wrapped book and trying to think what on earth it
could be—the rest of my life it turned out! Every major life choice since has
been governed by birds.
first Christmas Bird Count was in the mid-1980s. I was covering part of Dallas
with a couple of wonderful older ladies who were thrilled to have an eager
apprentice. Maureen Lee and Betty Vernon were so kind to me that day. I saw all
kinds of new birds. The most amazing thing was wrapping up the day at Betty’s
home; she went out back and doused the ground and various feeders with
sunflower seeds. I was flabbergasted by what happened next: two dozen cardinals
appeared and started feasting.
was lucky to have a few mentors from Dallas Audubon and Prairie and Timbers
Audubon Societies. First among them was Al Valentine, who loved to refer to
himself as the old redhead. This always puzzled me, as I looked at the gray
stubble poking out from under the edge of his hat that covered his
mostly-missing flattop. Al was a bird bander and birder. He would pick me up at
4:00 a.m. to band birds or chase them all across Texas. My first truly rare
bird was one we caught at the Plano Outdoor Learning Center. A yellow-bellied
bird lay in the bottom trammel of a mist net; a quick glance, and Al said,
“looks like a Mourning Warbler, you take it Gibbons!” I got the bird mostly
untangled, and all that remained was a single loop caught on its tongue. I
waited for the master to come help me finish the extraction. While waiting, I
examined the bird more closely. I remembered reading how the rare Connecticut
Warbler had exceptionally long undertail coverts, the very thing I was seeing
on the bird I cradled in my hand. Al came back, and I remarked about the
undertail coverts. He rolled my hand over, revealing the massive white eye ring
of a Connecticut Warbler, a rare find in Texas!
high school, my Freshman English teacher, Mr. Oglesby, caught me in the halls
one morning before class. He said, “Come here, there’s a bird outside my
office. It has a long bill and looks like it should be in the water!” He drew
his hand away from his face indicating a long bill. I followed him, not knowing
what to expect. I pressed my face to the glass, and there it was, a Timberdoodle!
My lifer American Woodcock was taking a migratory break in the school courtyard.
It hung around all day, and late in the evening I watched it flutter off as it
continued its journey.
a teenager, I enjoyed birding with my peers at two VENT youth camps, Camp
Chiricahua in 1988 and Camp Cielo in Mexico in 1990. It was great to be running
around with similarly-aged birders, an experience I had never had in all my
years of birding. Now I co-lead Camp Chiricahua with another 1988 Camp Chiricahua
veteran and new VENT leader Willy Hutcheson. Our first leading experience
together was thirty years after we were campers!
earned a degree in Biology from Stephen F. Austin State University in
Nacogdoches, Texas and set off working field biology jobs for several years,
chasing birds up to the midnight sun of Arctic Alaska and through the Caribbean
on each of the Greater Antilles. I spent many seasons afield in Colorado with
the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, where Lacrecia and I met.
the late 1990s, I was part of an ambitious project led by LSU and the Minerals
Management Service to try to ascertain how the 3,000 permanent structures, oil
platforms, in the Gulf of Mexico affected migrant birds. In late fall of one
year, I once went three days without seeing a single bird! Now, about that
second set of optics. During a sea watch from a platform named Green Canyon 18,
I had grabbed a chair and set up to watch for seabirds on the lee of the
platform. I got some chocolate cake from the galley to keep me busy between
sightings. My trusty Kowa scope and binoculars were ready when I noticed a
Sikorsky S-76 approaching to land on the helipad directly above me. I ducked
inside to avoid the roar of the twin turbine engines, only to emerge to a
distressing sight—the chair was turned over, and my scope was gone! I
frantically looked over the edge; there were no more decks below to catch a
falling scope, just the deep blue of the Gulf of Mexico. The great irony was
that there, under the chair, on a paper plate, was my chocolate cake. I was
saddened by this loss and still have a certain distaste for rich chocolate
cake. The crew said that I moped around for days like a child who’d lost his
2003 Victor called me and asked if I could co-lead a Copper Canyon (in northern
Mexico) tour with Barry Lyon, another 1988 camp alum, with the understanding
that I would be the main leader the following year. Since then, VENT has taken
me to far-flung places like the corners of the Polynesian realm: Hawaii, Tahiti,
and Rapa Nui (Easter Island); to opposite ends of the world—Antarctica and
Arctic Alaska; and to five continents. Now, nearly twenty years later, I’m looking
forward to an exciting 2021 and beyond, when we all can get back out there to explore
the world we love and enjoy the birds we crave.
stuck at home, I am lucky to live in Tucson, Arizona, Where I can escape to the
mountains with my family, away from folks, with nature surrounding us. I also
enjoy watching birds in my yard. My 2020 yard year list is the highest ever at
133 species—no surprise with so much home time. My son, Grayson, often
accompanies me on local outings. I’m trying not to push him too much, hoping he
will acquire an insatiable love of birds on his own, in our nature-centric home.
My wife, Lacrecia Johnson, works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where she’s
currently the project leader on the Masked Bobwhite Recovery Team.