Wednesday 7 September 2016

Alan Wormington – 1954 – 2016

On Saturday evening, Alan Wormington passed away while in hospice care in Leamington, Ontario. He had been dealing with the ravages of cancer for the past 30 months, but especially over the last six weeks or so. Alan Wormington was one of Canada’s and Ontario’s premier birders, and was widely considered by his peers as the most skilled birder of his generation. Alan’s knowledge of Ontario’s birds was enormous, and he was always on the “cutting edge” of the birding scene in Ontario – many would agree that he was the single most influential birder of his generation.

Alan Wormington at Moosonee sewage lagoons - September 24, 2014

Glenn Coady succinctly wrote about Alan’s influence as a field ornithologist, which I hope he doesn’t mind me posting here.

“Perhaps no one since Witmer Stone, a century ago at Cape May, has become so synonymous with the study of the birds of so crucial an area for their understanding and enjoyment, as has Alan Wormington at Point Pelee. As a field ornithologist, many of Alan’s achievements are the stuff of legend. He was the finder of seven species of birds were were new for the Ontario bird checklist: Lesser Nighthawk (1974), Royal Tern (1974), Fish Crow (1978), Cave Swallow (1989), Plumbeous Vireo (1997), Sooty/Short-tailed Shearwater (2010) and Kelp Gull (2012) – the most by anyone since the days of William Edwin Saunders a century ago. In addition, he found the first nests for Ontario of Chuck-will’s-widow (1977) and Cinnamon Teal (1983).”

Alan Wormington (front row, left) with Roger Tory Peterson (front row, center) at Point Pelee NP, May 1978

Alan was an excellent photographer, documenting many of his rare finds in an age before digital photography. He was a founding member of the Ontario Bird Records Committee, serving more terms than anyone else, and doing more than anyone to ensure its success as a peer review for rare bird records for Ontario. Alan has written numerous articles about bird status and identification, compiled bird records in meticulous detail for the Point Pelee and Moosonee Birding Areas, and contributed with information for, and reviews of, countless manuscripts and articles. Alan always edited my articles that I wrote for the journal North American Birds. It was often a bit of a painful experience receiving his edits back as I knew that he would meticulously scour every detail of my report for every possible mistake. Alan’s attention to detail and desire for accuracy was exemplary.

Alan Wormington at Moosonee waterfront - September 29, 2012

While Alan was most well known for his birding knowledge and skill, his understanding of the status and distribution of Ontario butterflies was unequaled as well. Alan's was chiefly interested in butterflies growing up, but immediately caught the birding bug after identifying a White-eyed Vireo in Hamilton one spring. His interest in butterflies, however, remained strong through his life; he found several new species of butterflies for the province, as well as countless firsts for Point Pelee. One of Alan's books that he was working on is the "The Rare Butterflies of Ontario" - hopefully its publication will come to fruition in the coming years.

Alan Wormington at Moosonee - September 29, 2013

Unlike many of his peers who have known Alan for decades, I only first met him in 2009. I distinctly remember the first time seeing him in person. I was a nineteen year old herper who had only been interested in birds for the past year or so, and I was visiting Point Pelee for my first time. Even as a new birder, I was well aware of Alan Wormington, as his name would frequently pop up on the Ontbirds archives from previous years or in conversations with other birders, and I certainly got the sense that this man was a legend in the Ontario birding scene. One morning on my inaugural Point Pelee visit, I was birding along the northeast corner of the Woodland Nature Trail. It was a beautiful and calm morning in the park and I was having fun identifying all the warblers and other songbirds I was seeing. Two other birders walked up the trail towards me, and I realized that Alan Wormington was one of them, accompanied by a friend whom I later found out was Henrietta O’Neill. I kept birding as they approached and I noticed a small songbird pop up deep within the dogwoods - it was a waterthrush, most likely a northern. Alan and Henrietta stopped and asked if I had seen anything, and I blurted out that there was a Worm-eating Warbler in the dogwoods, fully meaning to say waterthrush. Alan turned to look before I clarified that I meant to say waterthrush, but the damage had been done. After a quick look he continued on while I felt a bit red from shame! Alan had no recollection of this story when I told him about it last week, no doubt at the time he probably thought that I was just another newbie birder, confusing my waterthrushes with my worm-eating warblers.

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - October 22, 2012

In the years since, I have become very good friends with Alan. We have birded together often at Point Pelee, but some of my fondest memories of Alan come from the trips that we took to the southern coast of James Bay during autumn rarity-hunting expeditions.

From left to right: Jeremy Bensette, Josh Vandermeulen, Kory Renaud and Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - September 26, 2014

All told, we went on five expeditions to his beloved “Moosonee (Southern James Bay) Birding Area”. These trips were fantastic, often filled with rarities, many of which Alan of course spotted. Three of these trips were to Netitishi Point where we birded and sea-watched along the southern coast of James for two weeks straight, and two of these trips were just Alan and I. I have many great memories of these trips - tracking down the wayward Western Kingbird that flitted by us at dusk on our last day at Netitishi in 2012; spotting my first Ontario Northern Fulmar, the record breaking bird of my Ontario big year, alongside Alan; chatting about life and birds beside the campfire during the cold, crisp evenings; watching Alan have his glove stolen by the camp Red Fox, which was later found in the woods, missing a few fingers; straining through our scopes for hours on end during the really good days when thousands of birds migrated by as we struggled to keep track of the numbers.

Alan Wormington determining the wind direction at Netitishi Point - October 26, 2012

Sitting beside Alan on the coast of James Bay as he identified distant ducks and waterbirds while they were still specks on the horizon, I always felt extra motivated to spend long hours staring through the scope, working on my identification skills. I know that I am just one of many birders who strove to be better after watching Alan work his craft.

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - October 26, 2013

Alan was a pioneer when it came to birding in northern Ontario. He was fascinated with the birding on James Bay and the north shore of Lake Superior, with his main interest lying in the possibilities of finding rare birds. He would return home from these jaunts to the north with reports of numerous rarities each time - often accompanied by good photos. This photograph below features Mark Jennings, Bob Curry and Alan, taken in 1977 when Alan was 23 years old. It was a self-portrait of the guys from their trip to White Top (Ship Sands Island), located at the mouth of the Moose River near Moosonee. Alan told me several stories from these trips; the most memorable of these was a trip that Alan and I believe Bruce DiLabio went on to Moosonee, his first ever trip to the James Bay coast. The teenagers showed up in Moosonee with woefully inadequate equipment and hailed a boat ride out to Ship Sands Island. There was a strong tide combined with a north wind one night, and the guys awoke with water running through the tent. Luckily some native guys were also on the island and rescued them, by taking them in their boat to higher ground!

left to right: Mark Jennings, Bob Curry, and Alan Wormington at White Top (Ship Sands Island), James Bay - August, 1977

One particular example of Alan's tireless passion and skill in birding occurred on my first trip with Alan – a six day trip to Moosonee and back with Mark Jennings and Alan in late September, 2012. After a busy morning of birding around Moosonee, we were relaxing on a picnic bench and watching several Rough-legged Hawks flying over. Alan spotted a distant Buteo coming closer, and immediately began to show interest in it. I was kind of baffled when watching the hawk – it certainly appeared to be a Red-tailed Hawk but it exhibited a plumage I wasn’t familiar with. While I was still struggling to put a name to it, Alan proclaimed how he thought it was a Harlan’s Hawk, and we both took some photos of the bird circling over. Of course the photos show an adult Harlan’s Hawk, a bird that wasn’t even on my radar, but one that Alan was intimately familiar with in the odd chance that he would someday come across one.

Alan Wormington (left) with Mark Jennings at Moosonee - September 28, 2012

Another example from that same trip occurred several days later once we were back on the Highway 11 corridor. After concluding a busy day of birding all of the towns, sewage lagoons and landfills in this stretch, we continued to the east as the sun began to set. Alan was driving, going his customary 20-30 km/h over the speed limit while Mark and I stared out the windows  and tried not to fall asleep. I must confess that I was not paying much attention – it had been a long day and I was on my phone, reading up and seeing photos of a Mew Gull that had been found in Sault Ste. Marie, a bird which we would be trying for the following day. As we flew down the highway, Alan yellow out “Scissor-tailed Flycatcher!” and hit the brakes. I caught a glimpse of a long-tailed looking bird on the wire as we streaked past. He turned the car around and backtracked – sure enough, a young Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was perched on the power line in the fading evening light. His preparedness and dedication to his craft was readily apparent to those of us who were fortunate to have birded with Alan.

Alan Wormington and Kory Renaud at Netitishi Point - September 26, 2014 

Alan wasn't all business all the time - he had a quirky sense of humour which frequently surfaced when he was among friends. There is one story in particular I wanted to mention.

In late December, 2012, I was in Halifax, Nova Scotia to spend the holidays with Laura and her family. While a few days remained before the end of 2012, my Ontario big year was essentially over as I would not be returning back to the province until the calendar flipped over to January. I was checking my email one afternoon when I saw the Ontbirds post that had just come in. "Northern Lapwing at Hillman Marsh" it read, and of course Alan was the author. My heart sank as I read the details. Alan had discovered this bird with a flock of 40 or so Killdeer that were still lingering at the southwestern corner of Hillman Marsh, where the mud was still visible due to lowered water levels. Several Northern Lapwings had been seen recently on the east coast of North America, and it was a species that has long been our radar as a new addition to our province's avifauna, no doubt a species that Alan was well prepared for. He mentioned in the Ontbirds post that he had returned back to his house to get the word out and to grab his camera, and that he would be returning to Hillman Marsh shortly.

Alan Wormington at Netitishi Point - October 27, 2013
I checked Ontbirds, eBird, and the various Facebook groups throughout the evening, anxiously waiting for an update on the bird. Laura and her family did their best to dispel my glum mood, but it was of no use.

Strangely, there were no follow up Ontbirds posts, and nothing was on eBird for Hillman Marsh, despite several hours of light remaining when Alan originally posted. It then dawned on me. I quickly checked the original Ontbirds email - under the "Recipient" field, only my name was listed, and I quickly clued in that this was a fake Ontbirds post from Alan, the first one of several I would receive over the years. He really had me going for the better part of a day!

Alan Wormington at Moosonee sewage lagoons - September 26, 2012

I am honored to have known Alan and learned from him over the past six years. Alan was a generous and loyal friend to those who knew him throughout his life. His passing leaves a huge hole in the birding and butterflying communities, and he will be dearly missed and fondly remembered by many.


mapBaker said...

Thanks for this, Josh!!!

Unknown said...

great tribute josh... many thanks... patrick scanlon

The Furry Gnome said...

I'm so aorry to hear that, though I only knew of him by reputation.

Jeremy Hatt said...

Beautiful tribute, Josh. Thanks so much for writing this and sharing these great pics of Al.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful tribute Josh. Nina Radley

Unknown said...

This is a great tribute Josh.

Unknown said...

Excellent tribute.....

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this Josh. I first met Alan in the mid 1970s. Many memorable times & birds in the field together. Lovely to see him in the above photos.
Brock May

Unknown said...

Awesome post, Josh, thanks for sharing your memories of Alan. I knew him well in the early 1980s when we birded together at Pelee and elsewhere and I have followed his exploits ever since.

Peleegirl said...

A wonderful tribute Josh, you've captured him well.

Michael said...

A great, bitter-sweet read, Josh. Alan turned up some great birds in Texas too, including in 2010 an ABA area first Amazon Kingfisher

Anonymous said...

thank you for the lovely memories, those early days at Pelee, having dinner with Alan and Peter Boyd at the ole Copacabana in Leamington, Jeanne Brown

Laval Roy said...

Thank you Josh for this well deserved tribute to a great birder.

Janne Hackl said...

Well...this is the 3rd time I tried to post here lol
Thank you Josh for bringing these memories alive with the wonderful photos. Alan told me the stories but....
I knew Alan was looked up to and did important work but I did not realize he was considered the butterfly and bird expert for Ont/Canada/etc? Friends will be working on publishing 2 books that were almost completed, another will safeguard his years and years of files of statistics ...and more. Those who are on facebook and knew him are welcome to post memories on his page...wonderful to read ... Alan Wxworm Thanks again...his sister Janne Hackl

Blake A. Mann said...

You will have some fond memories, Josh. Alan was one of a kind and we relied on him all the time for so much information. I think about him every day and how much we all will miss him.

Brent Turcotte said...

I only met him once (in North Bay while looking for a White-winged Dove), but it is still sad to see him gone. Great tribute.

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Hi Janne,

I'm glad you enjoyed, and I'm looking forward to meeting you at some point! Yes Alan was one of the bird and butterfly experts in the province, and was certainly one of most respected and looked up to birders in Ontario/Canada as well. Of course he was probably too modest to tell you this!

J. Spike Wormington said...

A very nice tribute ... thank you.

Hipstermama said...

I had the pleasure of working with Al in mixed grass prairie in Manitoba. thank you for your tribute to him, it is nice to know more about the man behind the binoculars.