Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Birding Legend, Bill Rudden

Bill Rudden at Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary  Photo by Al Smith, used with permission

"Bird watcher"--even today, for many people, the image of Miss Jane Hathaway leaps to mind. When Bill's hobby shifted from hunting to bird watching, stereotypes tumbled. Bill was a firefighter for the city of St. Louis, Missouri (retired as a captain), and an athlete. As recently as 2007, he competed in IronMan triathlons. I was shocked and saddened when I heard of his death on June 30, 2013, by way of a comment on this blog.

Bill is a legend in the St. Louis birding community for his role in finding what Birds of the St. Louis Area calls, "the most famous bird to visit St. Louis" in 1984. Bill was birding along the Mississippi River near the Alton Dam on a miserably cold December day and spotted a large gull with a dark mantle. He alerted other birders, including birding experts Phoebe Snetsinger and Ron Goetz, and together they identified it as a Slaty-backed Gull--according to  Birds of the St. Louis Area, "the first known occurrence of this Siberian/Alaskan species in the lower 48 United States (113)."

Bill gets a nod in Olivia Gentile's biography of Phoebe Snetsinger, Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds (89-90). A long-time member of Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS), he often birded with Phoebe. According to Life List, in 1978, Snetsinger decided to try to break the record for the greatest number of bird species seen in a year in the St. Louis area. She enlisted Bill's help, and succeeded in listing more than 274 for the year.

Bill led the WGNSS field trips on Saturdays for a number of years in the 1980s and was well-known in the St. Louis birding community. His sense of fun was as legendary as his mad birding skills. The first time I met Bill was about 1991. That year, the WGNSS annual banquet was held at one of St. Louis' premier birding spots, Tower Grove Park. A few of us gathered before the event to enjoy some spring birding in the northwest section of the park. Big Day was only two days away, so when we ran into Bill,  members of the group peppered him with questions about his latest sightings.  (Big Day: birding jargon for a competition for the greatest number of bird species seen within a single day.) Referring to his own Big Day plans, he told us, "Oh yeah, my team's parachuting in at midnight."

As a birder, you've got to know your birds, and it helps to know your birders too. I recall a trip to Riverlands, hearing someone say, "Wait--isn't that Rudden over there? What's he lookin' at?" The whole bunch folded their scopes and scurried over to hear what Bill had to say. He was always generous with his news, ID tips, and wisecracks. He was active on the MoBirds listserve, sharing photos as well as reports. His last post on the list reads, "5-30-13 Horseshoe Lake SP Madison county IL. Mostly cormorants were loafing on a snag.  Main lake off old dredge point."

I hope more folks will share their tales about Bill and other birders. If you're unfamiliar with blogs, just click the word "comments" below to read other's comments and leave your own. There's no need to sign in.

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  1. And if anyone looked at that last post you are referring to Anne, there was a Brown Pelican hidden in it. That created quite a stir. I loved that about Bill. His photos were like the "Hidden Picture" section in the children's Highlight's Magazine for kids, except without as many clues all the time. I knew to look for his hidden pictures, though. Anyone who'd looked at them with any regularity knew he might have a surprise in store. Great man. I really want to hear all the old-timers' stories. I only knew him the last 5 years. - Chrissy McClarren

  2. Bill and I saw each other almost every day for the past five years, whether at Tower Grove Park or Carondelet Park or Riverlands or wherever the birds were. Many birders can attest to the extraordinary birder he was. But what I think I loved most about him was he could be completely outrageous and unpredictable. My fondest memory of such a time is the day I realized he was either seriously comfortable in my presence or he was pulling a Rudden and trying to see if he could shock me. I was birding at Tower Grove Park near Jack's Pond one afternoon when I see Bill pull up in his van and start walking toward me. He starts asking me what birds I'd been seeing, how I'd ID'ed them and such. He got into teacher mode and was throwing around words like 'supraloral' and 'undertail coverts' and other terms as he talked about the birds. I knew he was testing me. He knew I was a bit lazy and resistant to learning bird lingo. Once again, (this was a game with us) I recalcitrantly stated I didn't care to know my 'remige' from my 'rectrice.' I was expecting to hear him say once again that I need to learn this stuff to be a good birder, but instead, he says, with complete nonchalance, "Hey, since we're gonna be talking a while, let me go put my teeth in." My jaw dropped. I blurted, "What?" I hadn't even noticed he didn't have his teeth in. (Well, I didn't even know he had false teeth in th first place.) "Let me go get my teeth," he says again like he was commenting on the weather. Recovering my composure, (okay, so he did shock me for a second or two) I said "Sure, you go get your teeth." He walked to his van and plopped in his teeth and moseyed on back like nothing had happened, picking right up with a lesson on primary and secondary feathers. That memory still gives me the biggest giggle and grin. I love him for it. Thank you BILL!!!!!!!!!!! I will miss miss miss you. - Chrissy McClarren

  3. Thanks for these great stories Chrissy! I laughed too. I'm going to study that photo again!

  4. If you're not a local birder, you may not know that Bill's "hidden Brown Pelican" photo is only the 12th Missouri record since 1929. I wondered why he said, "Mostly cormorants…"

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